It’s Okay to Play With Food! Using Play Kitchens to Teach Good Food Habits

By Beth

Some years ago, I found myself in the aisle of a large toy store trying to find play food to go with a toy shopping basket and the play kitchen Santa was bringing for Christmas. I was struck by how hard it was to find “real” play food instead of cookies, ice cream, pizza, hot dogs, junk food, and worst, branded fast food play sets. Just like real world groceries, I had to pay more and had far fewer options to get fruits, vegetables, meats and breads.

Recently, I read research “Familiarizing with Toy Food” by Meghan Lynch from the University of Toronto. The research centered on how play in toy kitchens shapes children’s attitudes toward food. It was done by observing YouTube videos, posted by parents, that captured real life situations in toy kitchens. She was kind enough to answer some questions for The Cleaner Plate Club on how we, as parents, can use play to help our children develop a healthy relationship to food.

INTERVIEW with MEGHAN LYNCH, Nutrition Education and Behavior Researcher, questions in bold, and her answers are below.

Your research focuses on how a child’s social environment shapes his or her attitude toward food, meaning not just what foods are provided for children to eat, but shaping how they view food.

How important is social environment to our relationship with food?

The social environments plays a paramount role in shaping children’s lifelong attitudes towards food, as early experiences are pivotal in developing children’s food preferences. Children who are introduced to healthy foods early in life have the best chance of developing healthy relationships with food. After approximately age three, children model the nutritional behaviors of those in their environments, especially their parents’ food preferences and attitudes.

What does a healthy attitude toward food look like for kids?

A healthy attitude toward food for kids is in large part shaped by their social environments, and particularly with young children, changes and develops every day. It is important to understand that children’s initial rejections of new foods do not represent innate food preferences, but transient reactions that can be changed and developed through learning and experience. To foster children’s development of healthy attitudes toward food, parents should aim to allow children to eat when they are hungry and allow children to serve themselves. Parents should see their role as offering a variety of healthy foods, overseeing planning and assembly of meals, and setting schedule for meals and snacks, but they should not try to control the amount of food the child eats.

Can a parent give their child healthy foods to eat, but still role model an unhealthy social environment? How?

Yes, parents can feed their children healthy foods but still model unhealthy eating behaviours. Children learn primarily through observational learning, especially their parents’ attitudes and behaviours. Being a positive parental role model – that is, eating a variety of healthy foods and showing a willingness to try new foods –  is as important as providing children with healthy foods.

When you observed parents and children at play in the toy kitchens or with toy food, what types of behaviors would you say encouraged a healthy food attitude?

In the play settings, many parents could be seen encouraging their children to prepare and serve to the parent healthy foods such as green tea, soup, vegetables. Parents could also be seen encouraging healthy food preferences by pretending to consume the healthy foods and commenting on how delicious these foods looked or tasted.  These kinds of interactions are important, as they provide children with role models of people who enjoy healthy foods.

What types of behaviors would you advise against if parents want their kids to learn good food habits?

Whether in a play setting or real life, encouraging and modeling unhealthy food preferences and methods of food preparation are behaviours that are not helpful for developing healthy food habits in children. For example, voicing preferences for foods such as desserts or encouraging frying as a method of food preparation. Additionally, as described earlier, attempting to control over what, when, and how much children eat does not help children to learn to listen to their internal cues for hunger and satiety.

How important are the types of foods selected for a child to play with in shaping attitudes toward food? Can play scenarios help a child “rehearse” good food behaviors, or help counter picky eating behaviors?

Just why it is important to provide children with healthy toy foods to play with relates to the concept of “food familiarity.” Food familiarity refers to children’s preference for foods with which they are accustomed to seeing on a regular basis – the more familiar the food, the more likely the child will be to taste it. Importantly, children’s food preferences can be encouraged through their merely seeing these foods on a regular basis, and that repeated exposure to foods can overcome the initial refusal of them. It should follow, then, that one of the most important ways parents can encourage the development of healthy food preferences is by increasing children’s familiarity with new foods.

Thus, toy foods and play settings represent a way for parents to familiarize young children with healthy foods and act out healthy food behaviours. In the safety of play settings, parents can familiarize children with new foods and behaviours by teaching children how to chop vegetables, stir pots of food, and correctly use the oven or stovetop. In play settings, children in the higher age range (approximately five-to-six years of age) have been observed demonstrating behaviours that are the most representative of realistic food-preparation skills, such as setting the oven to a specific heat, covering foods before inserting them in the oven, and using pot-holders to remove dishes. Yet even with children in the younger age range (approximately three years of age), they can be seen acting out realistic food-preparation skills in their correct usage of utensils such as spatulas and whisks, in chopping and washing vegetables in the sink before cooking, and in stirring spoons in pots on stovetops.

How closely do children’s food play behaviors mirror their parents’ daily food behaviors?

Children have been found to treat their play with toy foods realistically, by acting out behaviours they have observed from others. Many children were realistically cautious in their pretend cooking, such as the young girl who washed and dried her hands before she began cooking. In my study, parents, too, were found to encourage use of the play-based setting as a venue for practicing realistic behaviours. In the majority of play settings, parents encouraged the washing of dishes and fruits and vegetables before cooking, as well as cautioned children about “hot” food and other dangers. In one instance, when a young girl’s father asked if she liked soda and the girl claimed she did, her father commented how her mother was the only family member who liked soda. The manner in which such play nutritional preferences were being influenced by the children’s real social influences could be seen most graphically in one play kitchen where a boy was making a pizza in a toy oven when his mother commented that it was “just like our pizza,” and the camera panned to the father preparing a pizza in the family’s kitchen.

Overall, how healthy were the majority of food behaviors presented in the videos? What types of trends did you see?

Unfortunately, many children were seen interacting with toy foods that more closely reflect typical Western diets of high-fat and energy-dense foods. The most common toy foods in the videos were nutrient-poor foods, such as cookies, fries, onion rings, and ice-cream. Children’s choices in food preparation in the play settings were dominated by behaviours reflective of family food-practices that are, unfortunately, detrimental to healthy nutritional development, such as reliance on easy-to-prepare foods. Interestingly, the microwave was the children’s most popular method for preparing food. Worth noting, too, was that in the majority of these cases, parents either did not respond (suggesting they were not surprised by their children’s knowledge and use of the microwave) or actually encouraged their children to use the appliance.

What types of foods were most often “consumed” in the play settings?

Foods consumed most often were what would be considered “extras” or “treats,” such as cookies, cakes, cupcakes, chocolates, brownies, and ice cream, coffee, sugar, salt, butter, and fast food (fries, onion rings, soft drinks, milkshakes). Cookies were a particularly popular choice for children to bake, eat, or serve to their parents. Parents, too, typically vocalized their preference for desserts and frequently encouraged their children to pretend to prepare, drink, or serve coffee. Additionally, nutrient-poor items from other food groups–hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and pizza–were represented far more often than choices of greater nutritional value. Worth noting is that these interactions were limited of course by the toy foods present, yet very few replicas of grains and dairy could be seen. As stated, children were limited by the toy foods provided by parents, who themselves were limited by the toy foods available for purchase.

When I was shopping for my own child’s toy kitchen and toy food, I was overwhelmed by the amount of branded fast foods, fast food “play” environments and the difficulty of finding toy foods that represented fruits and vegetables and non-fast food and items not found on a typical “kids’ menu.”

How much influence, good and bad, do these branded items have on kids’ own food choices and preferences? What’s the impact of branded food items on a young child?

An interesting body of research has revealed just how much children’s preferences for foods can be affected by branding. Children’s preference for certain brands plays a large role in their preference for foods. Studies with young children have found they show a significant preference for foods if they believe the food to be from McDonalds, a finding which held even for food that is not even marketed, nor available, from McDonalds. For example, preschool children have been found to prefer carrots if they are packaged in McDonalds wrapping (when compared to the same food not packaged in McDonalds wrapping). Likewise, other research has found young children significantly preferred the taste of foods with popular characters on the packaging. What these studies show are just how young children are influenced by branding of foods and reveal the myriad of factors that are involved in children’s liking of food.

Based on your research, what advice would you offer parents on how they could use play food settings to positively impact their children’s relationship with food?

Play food settings can be used to improve children’s familiarity with healthy foods and thus, their willingness to try these foods in real life. Parents can use food-themed play settings to foster healthy nutritional behaviours by ensuring that children interact with a variety of healthy toy food replicas (such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy). Through play in toy kitchens, supermarkets, and restaurants, children can also be encouraged to pretend to cook and eat healthy foods. Importantly, parents need to ensure that children are interacting with a variety of healthy toy foods, engaging in healthy mealtime behaviours, and experiencing adults who model healthy behaviours. However, it is essential to emphasize that this strategy is intended to complement and not replace offering new foods at meals on multiple occasions.

Meghan Lynch, thank you for taking so much time to share your insights. This is great information.

Additional Research by Meghan Lynch, and Related Research:

Lynch, M. Playing With Food: A Novel Approach To Understanding
Nutritional Behaviour Development
. Appetite. 54(3), 591-594.

Lynch, M. The Use of Toy Foods in Visual Familiarity Development:
Preliminary Research and Future Directions.
Journal of Nutrition
Education and Behavior.

Lynch, M. Play-based settings: An innovative method for the study and
development of nutritional behaviours in young children. Pediatric

Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH; Dina L. G. Borzekowski, EdD; Donna M. Matheson, PhD; Helena C. Kraemer, PhD

You can contact Meghan Lynch if you would like to cite her research or need more information:

Meghan Lynch
Mail: University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, 155
College Street, Health Science Building, ON, M5T 3M7, Canada

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