Parents of finicky preschoolers who seemingly subsist on pasta, cereal, bread and maybe peanut butter are bound to worry about whether their children are getting enough nutrition. You can expand your child's food horizons, however, by repeatedly exposing them to unfamiliar foods, a study finds. Repeated exposure turns new foods into more familiar ones, and this increases the chances that kids will eat them. And if that repeated exposure is combined with a child-friendly message about the food's value to kids' bodies, children become even more willing to taste new things.

Healthy eating habits are formed early in life, so it's a concern when young children do not meet dietary guidelines for healthy eating. The eating habits a child forms in the preschool years will likely stay with them when they are adults, so finding ways to teach them to eat right offers health dividends that extend throughout life.

Being offered a food repeatedly made the children more likely to try new foods, like new foods and eat new foods.

Researchers at Washington State University Vancouver recruited 98 families from two early education programs for preschoolers. One center, part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), served breakfast, lunch and snacks. At the other center, children brought their own lunch but were served snacks.

Children were introduced to tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils and quinoa over six-week period of time. They were put into groups and assigned to one of the foods. One group was repeatedly introduced to the food and another group was repeatedly introduced to the food and also given child-centered nutrition messages about the food. There was no type of intervention with two of the foods.

Two days a week children were offered one food to taste at tasting stations in the classrooms. The researchers kept track of how the children responded to the food and what they said about it. On some days, child-centered nutrition messages were used, too, like, “Whole grains help you run fast and jump high,” or “Fruits and vegetables help keep you from getting sick.”

As they tried a food, kids were asked to select from a series of pictures of facial expressions to show how the food tasted to them. At the end of the study, all of the foods were offered to the children as a snack, and researchers noted what was eaten by each child.

If offered a food repeatedly the children were more likely to try new foods, like new foods and eat new foods. Hearing the nutrition messages about the foods increased those effects. Children exposed to the child-centered nutrition messages ate twice as much of the foods at the end of the study.

“Because preschool children rely on other people to provide food, it is important to understand best practices to improve healthy eating,” said researcher, Jane Lanigan of Washington State University Vancouver, in a statement. “This study shows the value of creating consistent nutrition phrases to use in the home and in child care and healthcare settings during meal time.”

You can try this at home. When introducing a new food to your children, offer it to them over and over, but with no pressure to eat it. Vocalize a positive statement about the food that makes it appealing to a child. Eventually, they will probably taste it. Then just keep repeating the exposure.

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.