Start Early. Start well.

March 08, 2023

Graduate Scholars Program Funds UNL Student's Research Into Healthy Eating in Child Care Settings

Happy boy eating snackJasmin Smith's research project aims to find ways to modify the child care mealtime environment to improve preschool children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods. 

By Duane Retzlaff

Parents know that getting young children to eat their vegetables and other healthy foods can be a challenge. Child care providers know it, too.

Research shows that preschool-aged children’s dietary intake, especially for fruits and vegetables, does not meet nutritional recommendations. However, researchers have found that positive home mealtime emotional climate—which involves expressions of positive emotion, warm or nurturing interpersonal dynamics, high levels of group cohesion or enjoyment, and positive communication about food—has been associated with higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food. 

Jasmin Smith, a doctoral student in the Department of Child, Youth, and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is looking to study mealtime emotional climate in the child care setting. Her project aims to find ways to modify the child care mealtime environment to improve preschool children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods. The project aims to adapt and pilot an observational measure for assessing mealtime emotional climate in family child care homes. 

Jasmin SmithJasmin Smith

Smith’s research is supported by the Graduate Scholars program at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.  
Doctoral students within the University of Nebraska System can now apply for the next round of Graduate Scholars funding. Applications are due March 31. The one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, supports research that touches on the development, education, and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old.  
Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements
Past scholars have used the funding to examine a wide range of topics related to early childhood, including health disparities, the early math skills of preschoolers, neuroscience research on primates, and the stress and anxiety felt by mothers of premature babies. 

Since coming to UNL, Smith has been working on the Ecological Approach to (EAT) Family Style program. The program offers online professional development and coaching from Nebraska Extension educators to child care providers who aim to improve their feeding practices and child health outcomes by improving the mealtime environment at their programs.

“I am passionate about focusing on equity-related factors such as rural family child care home providers working with children from low-income and minority families as they are at higher risk of health disparities such as poor diet, increased stress, and obesity,” said Smith, a Champaign, Illinois, native.

For her project, Smith and her team are going into dozens of family child care homes across Nebraska and video recording mealtimes. They have collected data from 40 child care providers so far and are aiming for a total of 100 providers.

Nebraska Extension educators are involved in disseminating the EAT Family Style program through coaching in rural home-based child care programs. Smith’s team is meeting with the Extension educators to receive feedback on the adoption and implementation of mealtime emotional climate practices and gain providers’ perspectives. 

“Jasmin brings a strong knowledge base in psychology and research methods from her previous educational training, and she has constantly sought out rigorous coursework that has given her a greater understanding of policies and practices in the early childhood field,” said Dipti A. Dev, her faculty mentor. “Jasmin has shown herself to be a thoughtful, organized, and dedicated researcher with a passion to continue to learn and find ways to conduct research positively impacting early childhood education programs, policies, and the community.”

Dev said the study has the potential to inform the field on the importance of mealtime emotional climate and the need for professional development focusing on the creation of positive mealtime emotional climate to improve children’s health outcomes and potentially reduce provider stress during mealtimes.

Smith said she benefited from the Graduate Scholars program even before receiving a fellowship—going through the application process led her to further develop her research proposal and plan out the entire research design.   

“The fellowship has also enabled me to reach rural communities which are often underrepresented in research,” she said. “Through the fellowship I was also able to present to Buffett Early Childhood Institute team members, who asked questions and provided feedback. Through their valuable feedback I was able to strengthen my research project's methodological plan."  


Duane Retzlaff is a communications associate at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, helping share the Institute’s work with educators, child care providers, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the general public.

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