Choosing Health Food is Fun
with Nutritionists' On-line Game
wo UConn nutrition experts have their own recipe for success. The two - Colleen Thompson and Ellen Shanley of the Department of Nutritional Sciences - have cooked up an Internet food game that is growing in popularity internationally.
The duo also recently co-authored a book that is intended to be user-friendly for adolescents and is designed to put them on the right track when it comes to their eating habits.
The interactive nutrition education game, called "Rate Your Plate," features the Food Guide Pyramid, Dietary Guidelines 2000, food labels, and nutrient analysis. It can be found at http://www.team.uconn.edu/. To play, you click on a food image, create a meal, and then learn whether or not you've made healthy food choices.
In addition to the game, the website provides nutrition resources and winning recipes.
Thompson, an extension educator in-residence and Shanley, an extension instructor in-residence and director of the undergraduate dietetics program, say the game evolved by itself.
They set out to develop a hands-on nutrition activity, but weren't sure such a game was possible to produce. They credit Andy DePalma, coordinator of the Information Technology Services' Web Development Lab, and Mike Russo, an undergraduate student, for being the technology wizards behind the game.
"We just took the imagination of Colleen and Ellen and made it happen," says DePalma. He is working on an expansion of the game that he expects to complete soon, "but as yet we're not quite ready for prime time," he says.
To prepare for the nutrition element of the website, the two conducted a statewide recipe contest. Recipes came from teenagers and from school food services directors and teachers and students in family and consumer science classes in both the middle schools and high-schools.
All the recipes were tested in the University's food laboratories: the dishes were prepared by UConn students, sampled by University staff, students and faculty, and then rated for taste, texture and overall acceptability. Thompson and Shanley then analyzed the nutrients in selected recipes.
The website, which went on-line in May, has received some 2,500 evaluations not only from people in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but also from as far away as St. Petersburg, Russia, says Thompson. The evaluations, many of them from students and teachers, have been mostly positive, she says.
The website also was recently given a high rating of "better than most" by Tufts Nutrition Navigator, considered the Internet authority on where to go for accurate and timely nutrition information.
Tuft's top ranking is called "among the best." After completion of the revisions now under way to the game, the two are hopeful that "Rate Your Plate" will advance to the "boardwalk" position of nutrition games.
The paperback book, Fueling the Teen Machine - a nutrition and food reference book for pre-teens and teens - covers everything from carbohydrates and vitamins to eating disorders and vegetarianism and is scheduled for release in February by Bull Publishing of Palo Alto, Calif.
"This is not a textbook," says Shanley. "We wrote the book so it would be user-friendly to young people, addressing contemporary topics."
"Teenagers' eating habits keep fast-food restaurants flourishing, but do little to keep the kids themselves in shape and healthy," adds Thompson. "Our book addresses this pesky problem by presenting teens with the latest information on a wide range of food topics."
Partial funding for both the game and the book came from grants from the Connecticut State Department of Education's Child Nutrition Programs and the USDA's Team Nutrition Training grants.
Thompson, who joined UConn in 1993, holds a master's degree in nutritional sciences from the University. Shanley, who has been with the University since 1985, holds an MBA from Babson College.
Claudia G. Chamberlain