LANA Program Gets Preschoolers Excited for Snap Peas and Sweet Potatoes

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Successful childhood nutrition program establishes healthy eating habits early in life

Leave it to a bug-eyed reptile to get preschoolers to do what parents, caregivers and educators have struggled to get them to do for years: eat their fruits and vegetables.

A research-tested program developed by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the University of Minnesota with grant funding from the National Cancer Institute aims to help young children establish healthy eating patterns early in life.

This comprehensive 24-week preschool nutrition program introduces children to eight targeted fruits and vegetables, like broccoli, snap peas, apricots and cherry tomatoes; foods that children may not have tried before but are easily accessible. The plan features weekly tasting and cooking activities and provides fruit and vegetable-focused activities for each domain of learning designated by the state of Minnesota. Instead of the teacher or a parent introducing the foods, it is Lana the Iguana, a green hand puppet who encourages fruit and veggie exploration with games, stories and activities in math, reading and art and tasting.  Children are really Learning About Nutrition through Activities (LANA).

Although LANA started in Minnesota, the program has been adopted in various early childhood programs nationwide and will reach thousands of preschoolers in Newark, N.J. this fall. Earlier this year, several Newark school nurses became trainers for the district so that nearly 400 early-childhood and elementary educators will be ready to bring Lana the Iguana into their classrooms. The implementation of the program in Newark follows a major rollout across the country, and marks a significant milestone for the developed-in-Minnesota program.

A research study conducted by the MDH discovered that by the time children reach second grade, their preferences for fruits and vegetables are already well established. This led to the idea of introducing fruits and vegetables at an earlier age, in preschool. The research also found that for an in-school nutrition program to be effective, it needed to be integrated into existing classroom curriculum (not added on to already full school days). It also needed to include parent engagement and education, as well as changing existing school menus to include more fruits and vegetables.

In 2009, the research continued as 75 licensed home child care programs in Dakota County, Minnesota used LANA. They reported that after implementation of LANA, children in their care were 67 percent more likely to eat fruits, 78 percent more likely to eat vegetables, and 92 percent more likely to try new foods. The program is aligned with National Association for the Education of Young Children Accreditation Standards and the Head Start Early Learning Framework. More information on the research and subsequent program implementation can be found here.

This program is being used at Kinderberry Hill child care centers in the Twin Cities area, where teachers see the program paying off. Maegan Recksiedler, Jen Matysik, and Jenny Stenzel teach three and four year olds together at Kinderberry Hill in Roseville. Once a week, they pick a snack from the LANA cookbook to make with their students. Lana the Iguana also joins them and asks them about what they created.

“We have really enjoyed using the LANA curriculum in our classroom,” says Recksiedler. “Since using the curriculum I have noticed that the children are more willing to try new foods during meal times. Plus, they love talking with Lana about their new snacks.”

Recksiedler, Matysik and Stenzel also give their students LANA take-home bags that include snack ideas, fruit and veggie stuffed toys, books, and family activities.

“The take-home bags have helped to bridge the gap between home and school,” says Matysik. “They have provided a great resource for families with picky eaters.”

The program follows these basic strategies that can be practiced at school or at home:

  • Create a calm and pleasant experience with meals and snack time: Children are more likely to try new foods when they are enjoying themselves.
  • Involve children in food preparation: When a child helps create a snack or meal, they become invested and are excited to eat the food being served.
  • Offer fruits and vegetables first at meal times: Offering these foods first provides increased visibility and value.  A new food must be offered multiple times for children to try it and learn to like it.
  • Serve or offer age appropriate portions: Approximately one tablespoon per year of age of the child is an appropriate serving of fruits and vegetables, with a smaller amount for new foods.
  • Adults and children eat together: Children who see adults trying new foods are more open to try them as well.
  • Understand “normal” childhood eating habits: Spills and messes will happen, as will irregular eating and some food waste.

The emphasis on parent involvement has been a big factor in the success of this program. The take-home information and supplies for tasting kits are a key piece. Parents are surprised and pleased when their child comes home excited to try simple recipes for snap peas and kiwi.  When parent see the success children have at school with this program, they are more likely to offer new foods at home as well.

The teachers at Kinderberry Hill love that LANA is a fun, easy, yet effective program. “With the combination of creative snacks such as the ‘Stoplight Snack’ (which is made with graham crackers, cream cheese, strawberries, apricots and kiwi) and the high level of developmentally appropriate activities, this program works great for our kids,” says Stenzel.


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