With the diet and exercise behaviours of UK school children showing little improvement over recent years, the need for dietary change is clearly indicated. This study aimed to assess the nutritional knowledge and understanding of primary school children in order to identify the most effective format for future nutrition messages. A qualitative methodology was employed and 114 children, aged 7-11 years, took part in 23 focus groups separated by age, gender and socio-economic status (SES). Issues discussed included parental food rules, children's perceptions of 'good' and 'bad' foods, diet-disease links and food groupings. Across the groups restrictive food rules were most frequently reported whilst between groups gender and SES differences were apparent in relation to parental control over food and children's nutritional knowledge. The limitations of the children's cognitive development could be seen in their conceptualization of food groups, where concrete grouping schemes were frequently used, and in the lack of understanding inherent in their food-health or food-nutrient associations. Taste and preference were confirmed as consistent influences in children's food classification. Primary school children may be receptive to food based dietary guidelines based on familiar, concrete food classifications. These should be cognitively appropriate and possibly need to be gender specific.
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