Rutgers nutritionists develop an online program designed to curb growing obesity rates among children and make homes safer

Family Table
When children eat with their parents and have healthy food options, they are more likely to maintain good nutritional habits as they age.
Courtesy Department of Agriculture

'Parents of young children act as the gatekeepers of the home environment, and children look to them as role models. It’s important that parents instill healthy behaviors during these formative years.'
–Jennifer Martin-Biggers

Every parent – even those with busy lives and tight budgets – can create health-minded homes and lifestyles. The key: Implement simple changes over time, say researchers at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, who have developed an online educational program to help New Jersey parents curb their kids’ tendencies toward obesity and create safer homes.

Spurred by the 17.3 percent obesity rate in New Jersey among children under 5, nutritional science professors Carol Byrd-Bredbenner and John Worobey and research assistant Jennifer Martin-Biggers created HomeStyles, an 18-month online program that offers quick, fun tips to educate parents of preschoolers on how to shape their homes and lifestyles.

The project, a collaboration with the University of Arizona and Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, is funded by a Department of Agriculture grant.

“Parents of young children act as the gatekeepers of the home environment, and children look to them as role models. It’s important that parents instill healthy behaviors during these formative years,” says Martin-Biggers. She notes that when the grant was funded in 2011, New Jersey and Arizona were two of the three states with the highest prevalence of preschool obesity among low-income families.

HomeStyles is a series of self-guided sessions that parents can access online on their own. The Rutgers team is recruiting 900 families with children 24 to 48 months old to participate in the program, which is provided in English or Spanish. These families will be part of a study to test the effectiveness of online intervention on home environments and lifestyle practices in preventing excessive weight gain and improving home safety with preschoolers.

Parents interested in participating can visit to check their eligibility and then create a profile to get started in the program. Once enrolled, parents spend about 15 minutes each month reviewing one of 12 guides that focus on health or safety. Topics include: eating together as a family, rethinking beverage choices, dealing with picky eaters, chemical and pesticide safety, washing hands correctly, promoting adequate sleep and trading TV time for active play. Families receive gifts to help them make their homes and lifestyles healthier, and can earn money by completing surveys.

Children Eating Healthy
Fostering healthy eating patterns early can help curb New Jersey's obesity rate in children under 5, currently 17.3 percent.
Courtesy Department of Agriculture

“During the month, parents will receive ‘nudges’ with motivating messages tailored to the guide they are working on through phone, email or text, encouraging them to make small adjustments, which will add up over time,” says Martin-Biggers. “At the end, we measure how these guides together improved both the family’s behavior and their home environment.”

HomeStyles expands upon a pilot study for creating healthier kitchens conducted by Byrd-Bredbenner from 2005 to 2009; the goal is to implement this program nationwide. “We received such positive feedback from parents who encouraged us to keep moving forward and give them new opportunities,” she says.

She notes that while many studies have been done on how changing preschoolers’ behavior can affect obesity rates, research targeting parents and including the entire family is an understudied area.

“Our goal is to get parents to change their home environments as well as their lifestyles with actions that are quick, easy and fun – and if we can get the whole family involved and feeling good about their health, we will see the best results in the families overall.”