Jeanette Rapson

Vegetables from weaning to improve health and nutrition , Huawhenua hei whakapai hauora me te kaitōtika

A passion for nutrition, and a talent for translating complex science into easy-to-understand information, has seen Jeanette Rapson's research pave the way to a healthier future for Kiwi kids.

Research for 'real humans'

From fridge magnets to booklets, Jeanette Rapson's knack for making science and research user-friendly came to the fore when she was awarded a scholarship to do her PhD in Human Nutrition at Massey.

Her study, called ‘Vegetables as first foods for babies’ (also known as the Veges First Study), was the first of its kind in New Zealand.

From 2019, she investigated whether feeding babies vegetable-only foods from the moment they start solids helps them to eat more vegetables as they grow. She recruited 117 mothers and babies in Auckland, and randomly assigned them to feed their baby either vegetable-only foods or a combination of fruit and vegetables.

Jeanette provided the food and the babies were fed at home. They were followed up at nine-months-old, 12 and 24 months, which included monitoring their iron levels. This resulted in "unique and important findings" scientifically, but it also led Jeanette on unexpected pathways towards understanding how she could help families with health and nutrition in the future.

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When creative communication meets science

Once a fine arts student, Jeanette was particularly excited about the prospect of designing and making a range of multimedia resources for families participating in the study. These included videos on when and how to start solids, how to make iron-rich meat purées, and what to do when baby is not having a good feeding day. She also drew on her creative skills to make a range of fridge magnets and booklets.

“Beyond my love of learning, I liked how practical and translational the research was, with the potential to positively impact families, help children learn to eat vegetables from an early age and improve the evidence-base for infant feeding guidelines. This study was particularly a good fit for me as the project allowed me to use both my dietetic knowledge and creative background to design the study and then translate the evidence into easy-to-understand resources.”

To thank participants, each baby received these resources for free, as well as a hand-sewn colourful baby bag with their name embroidered on it. “All made by my supervisor’s mother,” says Jeanette.

“All these creative and personal touches are important, as we need to remember that we are not simply working with ‘subjects’ but real humans. Without our participants, we could not do our research.”

Building strong, honest and genuine relationships, and the fact that families were enjoying the research process, meant a high number successfully stayed on the study to the end. The resources, so well-received, will now be developed to be made available to the public.

From cake decorating to nutrition

Jeanette has had a passion for learning new things and sharing knowledge in creative ways since childhood. Growing up in South Africa, she recalls making a trivia board game about the sea creatures she’d learned about.

When she moved to Aotearoa New Zealand aged 11 with her family, she found more opportunities to experience things that inspired her mind and creativity, “including beautiful wildlife and scenery, interesting food and different cultures”.

“I have been grateful for my loving family who are avid learners, care about health and nutrition, and have always instilled a sense of ‘can do’ spirit in me.”

But Jeanette’s career began a long way from science and nutrition. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours), she became a cake decorator. She worked in London where she made cakes for celebrities and tutored at a cake decorating school.

Ironically, she found a developing interest in health and fitness meant she didn’t eat many of the beautiful cakes she made. On her return to New Zealand, she decided to learn more about nutrition by meeting with a dietitian. Once she’d experienced for herself the health benefits of eating healthy food, and an enjoyment in sharing that, her change in career path was set.

Moving to Massey

Jeanette completed a Graduate Diploma in Science (Human Nutrition) with distinction and did her Master's in Dietetics at Massey University in 2018.

“I particularly enjoyed the research component and could already see myself working in research long term. I also was drawn to public health, with a high interest in the early prevention of disease, starting from infancy and childhood.”

As a new graduate, Jeanette worked with the Heart Foundation creating food and nutrition resources for schools and children. "A key part of my role was being able to translate the science into easy-to-understand nutrition messages. The job was a lot easier when the evidence was available and clear, and it amazed me how little evidence we had, and still have, on some important topics."

“There is a real need for clear, simple and evidence-based nutrition advice to cut through all the confusion and mixed messages out there.”

Meeting busy parents, who felt frustrated by a lack of healthy convenient baby foods led to another idea: creating freeze-dried 100% vegetable baby foods. Freeze-drying the baby food means the colour, nutrients and original flavour of vegetables are preserved, while improving shelf-life and convenience.

"It’s always pained me that our food environment includes high-sugar, high-fat and high-salt foods that are very accessible, making it more difficult for families to make healthy choices."

"Although I always encourage families to grow, cook and prepare their own vegetable baby foods, I also understand that with busy lifestyles, there is a need for healthy convenient options as well. I hope that these products will be one way to support these parents as they start introducing vegetables to their baby's diet," says Jeanette. She adds that there’s a lot of pressure for parents to “get it right” when it comes to child nutrition.

“Therefore, investing in research that can help policy makers and health professional provide easy to follow evidenced-based advice that parents can trust is much needed.”

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Facing the overwhelm

Jeanette says the biggest challenge during her PhD was “facing the sense of overwhelm that can comes with tackling a big project”.

“The research process requires upskilling in many areas, from planning and recruitment to data analysis and sharing results (written and verbal). It can also be a lonely journey. However, the flip side of this is that these challenges help you grow.”

This taught her the importance of having supportive people around her, including connecting with fellow students. She also learned to take each task one step at a time, celebrating each milestone and finding ways to support her mental and physical wellbeing, such as yoga and meditation.

Despite the challenges, Jeanette thoroughly enjoyed her PhD and felt well-supported at Massey. She’d originally chosen Massey to continue her studies not only because it had a beautiful campus (“with plenty of parking”) but also because it is the home of world-class researchers and research facilities.

“It gave me the opportunity to work under the mentorship of my supervisors, Associate Professor Cath Conlon and Professor Pam von Hurst, who are internationally recognised experts in child nutrition and health and have extensive research experience including clinical trials and population studies.”

As a student of the Riddet Institute, which is well-connected with industry, Jeanette was able to expand her networks nationally and internationally, as well as meeting other students of a high calibre.

And, by taking a free lunchtime ideation workshop and entering Massey’s Grand Ideas Competition – which saw her win second place with her freeze-dried vegetable baby foods project – she opened the doors to professional development opportunities with Scholars Massey and the ecentre Massey.

Read: Riddet Institute PhD student Jeanette Rapson becomes KiwiNet Finalist

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Helping families into the future

After completing her PhD, Jeanette continued to work as a dietitian in research, with a special interest in infant and child nutrition.

She is also developing her freeze-dried baby food business – another first in New Zealand – by learning more about innovation and industry, hoping to make a positive change to families and whānau.

Alongside this, given her diverse background and skillset combining design, nutrition and project management she has gained, Jeanette has found herself taking on more work that involves science communication.

Meanwhile, her PhD findings have been submitted for publication, and were presented at a number of conferences. An Iron for Babies webinar through Massey University, sponsored by NZ Beef + Lamb in late 2021, attracted more than 500 registrations.

"I am happy that I can continue to contribute to research that is for the benefit of the health of children and young New Zealand families. It’s been a very exciting journey and I look forward to where my career goes next.”

Her advice to anyone considering doing research at Massey is to "follow your curiosity and constantly seek opportunities that interest you, grow you and put you out of your comfort zone".

“Keeping an attitude of service and understanding how you can make a valuable contribution to society with your research is really important, as is practising self-care and gratefulness.”

 Jeanette Rapson

Jeanette Rapson

College of Health

More information

Thesis title

Impact of a ‘vegetables first’ approach to complementary feeding on later intake and liking of vegetables in infants: a randomised controlled trial.

Jeanette Rapson's thesis (login required)


Partners and supporters

Research links, media and talks


  • Massey University Vice Chancellor's Scholarship 2019
  • Nutrition Society student travel award 2019
  • Massey University Grand Ideas Competition winner 2020
  • Riddet Institute travel award 2021
  • Kiwi Innovate semi-finalist 2021
  • Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award – Momentum/KiwiNet nominee 2021

Published 25 January 2022.