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Drexel study uses video conferencing at dinnertime to help parents get their kids to eat healthier

Project Picnic is an ongoing study offered by the Drexel University Well Center, which provides live video coaching sessions for parents during family meals.

Grace Edwards, 6, holds up her dinner note cards at her home in Springfield, Delaware County.
Grace Edwards, 6, holds up her dinner note cards at her home in Springfield, Delaware County.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The wake-up call for Amy Edwards came in the form of a doctor’s appointment for her 6-year-old daughter, whose weight gain over the last year had prompted a discussion with the pediatrician about healthy eating.

“I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have,” said Edwards, a divorced mother of four, who works full time as the director of the Drexel Autism Support Program for Student Life.

As a longtime member of Weight Watchers, Edwards knew the types of changes that needed to be made at home, but she also needed support. She had seen information on the college’s website about Project Picnic, an ongoing study offered by the Drexel University Well Center, which provides live video coaching sessions for parents during family meals. In late April, she met with the researchers.

The free program is aimed at families with children between ages 2 and 10 who need help losing weight or encouragement to eat healthy. It is the dissertation project of Britt Evans, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate whose research is focused on eating disorders and obesity.

“The coaching is all directed at the parent,” said Evans. The sessions are done by video and Bluetooth listening devices the parents wear at home during mealtimes to get real-time feedback, she said.

The project aims to address the ongoing obesity epidemic in the United States. Nationally, about 20 percent of American children and young people ages 6 to 19 years are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex.

At the beginning of the program, parents attend a workshop to learn about healthy food choices and proper portion sizes and to get tips on how to make changes in the kitchen to help kids choose more nutritional foods. They also learn do’s — encouraging new foods — and don’ts — food bribes or rewards — of healthy eating habits and how to put it all into practice at home. The family then participates in six at-home video conference sessions. (Participants are compensated $30 if they complete the study.)

Parents these day are so busy and stressed with work and child-care needs that by the time they get home they don’t want to pick battles over what kids eat, Evans said. That, along with the types and quantities of unhealthy foods that are available everywhere, can make the situation more difficult, she said.

“There are so many factors stacked up against healthy eating,” Evans said.

‘A bug in her ear’

Edward’s youngest child, Grace, 6, had her fill of sweet treats at home. She would eat when she was bored and was also occasionally “rewarded" with food. But, she was also fairly active with dance and lacrosse, said Edwards, of Springfield Township, Delaware County.

It was at one of Grace’s lacrosse games this year that she noticed her daughter wasn’t keeping up as she had in the past, Edwards said. Then, when Grace’s pediatrician noted that she was overweight, Edwards started making changes at home with the help of Project Picnic.

Ice cream for dessert was out and fresh fruits were in. Vegetables with dips or peanut butter replaced other snacks, she said.

“I don’t buy chips at all,” said Edwards.

She now uses a kitchen scale to measure portions and Grace will often help weigh the food, said Edwards.

During a recent video coaching session for the study, Evans logged in from her Drexel University office computer via Skype to the Edwards home so she could watch as the family had dinner. She was able to offer suggestions to Edwards, who was equipped with a Bluetooth listening device. The family was not able to see Evans as they ate, but they were aware she was watching.

Evans coached Edwards as a “bug in her ear" -- for example, encouraging her to praise Grace when she made a good food choice.

For dinner that night, Edwards made Hawaiian chicken and rice, along with a stack of fresh pepper slices that were arranged upright in a container on the table.

“Grace, have you had yellow and orange peppers before?” Edwards asked.

“Yes, at Daddy’s,” Grace said. But, she had not tried red peppers because she was afraid they were hot, she said.

“These are not hot peppers,” Edwards said as she offered up a red pepper for her daughter to taste.

“Oh, wow,” said Evans watching from her office in Drexel. “She went for it.”

Grace finished eating her peppers by dipping them into salad dressing. The dinner was deemed a success.

Evans suggested Edwards serve red peppers again during the week to reinforce the experience.

Just over a month into the study, Grace has lost a few pounds. The goal is not for Grace to actively try to lose weight but to gradually develop healthier eating habits. If she can do that, then she will grow into a healthy BMI, Edwards said.

“It made me reexamine how we were eating and what I was providing in the house,” Edwards said.

Tips for eating more fruits and vegetables:

  1. Offer up a variety and encourage eating fruits that are different colors.

  2. Serve fruit in pancakes, as a lunch item, and at snack time, and add them to dinner recipes, such as putting orange sections in a salad. Make frozen-banana popsicles. Freeze fruits for summer snacks.

  3. Hiding vegetables under cheese or sauces won’t make kids like them more. Focus on how to add flavor while keeping the vegetable as the primary ingredient of the dish. Try grilling vegetables for a different flavor or adding spices.

  4. Get creative with salads by adding shredded carrots, oranges, strawberries, or other seasonal items. Add vegetables into casserole or pasta dishes.

  5. Make fruits and vegetables fun. Whip up tasty dips, decorate baked potatoes to make funny faces, and use celery, peanut butter, and raisins to make “ants on a log.”

  6. Give kids choices. Let them arrange fruits and vegetables in a fun design for dinner. Set up a pizza-making station with a selection of fruits and vegetables for toppings.