Dr. Lucy Cooke is a Senior Research Psychologist in the Health Behaviour Research Centre of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. She is a member of the National Steering Group for Childhood Feeding Disorders and a Trustee of the charity the First Steps Nutrition Trust. After acquiring a first class degree in Psychology at UCL, Dr. Cooke went on to complete a Master’s degree in Health Psychology and was awarded a PhD for research into children’s eating habits in 2006.
Her research area is the development and modification of young children’s eating habits. She has led a number of projects within the Research Centre including the ‘Poppets’ study, which aimed to characterise aspects of family food environments associated with healthier and less healthy dietary patterns in preschool children using a survey methodology. The second phase of this project involved the testing of a habit theory-based intervention to reduce children’s unhealthy drinking and snacking behaviours and to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. Dr. Cooke was principal investigator on a NPRI/MRC funded project investigating the influence of incentives on children’s consumption of vegetables which inspired the development of the Tiny Tastes pack. She is also task leader for a randomised controlled trial of a weaning intervention – part of the EU FP7 HabEat project.
Since 2012, Dr. Cooke has also been working with Weight Concern to develop evidence-based guidance in child feeding and related issues for health professionals and parents.
Questions & Answers
Typically, vegetables are children’s least liked foods and so Tiny Tastes was specifically designed to help parents to introduce them. However, the Tiny Tastes method can be applied to any ‘problem’ food and indeed many parents have told us that they have used the technique to introduce a variety of food types from fruit to fish.
The research behind Tiny Tastes was conducted with children aged from approximately 3 to 6 years, but the techniques have been successfully applied in younger and older age groups, and even in adults. The only adaptation necessary would be to identify age-appropriate rewards, since the motivating effect of stickers appears to diminish with age!
The beauty of Tiny Tastes lies in its practicality and simplicity. Everything needed to implement the program is contained in a colorful folder complete with simple-to-follow instructions.
I do not foresee any particular challenges.
When evaluating Tiny Tastes, we have examined a variety of outcomes with intake of an unfamiliar vegetable as the primary measure of success. However, positive effects on general liking of vegetables, and greatly increased willingness to taste novel foods have been observed. More distally, participants in the research studies have reported improvements in mealtime interactions and reductions in parent-child conflict around food. I would suggest that appropriate evaluation tools would very much depend on the target population, but I would be happy to advise on a case-by-case basis.
There is growing evidence that the early years of life are when life-long eating habits and food preferences are formed. Consequently, I have started to look at the weaning period, when solid foods are first offered, as a window of opportunity for introducing less intrinsically likeable foods such as the stronger tasting vegetables. A European Union-funded project in which I am a partner has been testing an intervention using a variety of vegetables as first foods with some promising results emerging from the data.