woman holding baby eating a cucumber

Jennifer Orlet Fisher, professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the College of Public Health, has been named co-chair of the national Healthy Eating Research (HER) panel, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The panel will develop scientific guidelines to encourage healthy eating behaviors among children ages two to eight. Combating childhood obesity is an objective of the HER panel, "but our primary goal is to focus on what we know about developing healthy eating behaviors," Fisher said.

"In contrast to the dietary guidelines, which focus on food and nutrient intakes, these guidelines will focus on the 'how tos' of feeding children to promote healthy behaviors," Fisher said. "Parents have an idea of what a healthy diet looks like, but how do you nurture those habits?  How do you get kids to eat vegetables? And like vegetables?"

Fisher has done pioneering research in promoting family contributions to the development of children’s eating behaviors as director of the Family Eating Laboratory at the Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education. Separately, The Obesity Society, a national organization, recently honored Fisher with its Oded Bar-Or Award, a lifetime achievement accolade recognizing significant contributions pediatric obesity research "that have resulted in major advances in scientific understanding of etiology, prevention, and treatment."  

The HER panel for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will pull together the growing body of literature on children's eating behaviors to develop evidence-based technical recommendations, which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation hopes to publish for audiences including parents, child care providers, health professionals and policy makers in early 2021, Fisher said.

"The research we're looking is akin to nutritional psychology," Fisher explained. For example, what is the impact of pressuring children to eat certain foods versus letting children make their own choices? How do children’s experiences at the table influence how well they respond to their cues of hunger? The panel will explore educating parents about strategies for feeding children, including recommendations for setting up healthy home food environments.

The effort includes a monthly online panel bringing together experts from around the U.S. "We were talking about picky eating on the last call," Fisher said."One thing that's important for food acceptance is to give kids repeated experiences with new foods—and it can take anywhere from five to 15 exposures for kids to accept a new food. One of the panelists brought up the important point that for families with low resources and those who experience food insecurity, it is going to be a challenge to watch food go to waste if kids are not quite there accepting a new food. These kinds of conversations are critical from moving from the science to recommendations that are useful to parents."

There is no shortage of popular advice available on feeding kids, and a lot of it seems like common sense, Fisher says. "The science doesn’t always support conventional wisdom," she adds. "So that's how these recommendations are different. We will only put forward recommendations where there is consensus on the evidence."