What are you really teaching your kids about healthy eating habits? How much do they take after you? Read this to find out.
Mom and dad actively make food choices for the family; they decide what foods enter the family home, and what is put on the dinner plate. They are models for dietary choices and eating behaviours. But how much of your own behaviours do children actually pick up? Does it really matter if you tell the kids they can't eat those lollies, but they see you eat a block of chocolate after dinner? If you tell them to eat more fruit, but they hardly ever see you eat some?
Fruit and Vegetable Intake:
It's always best for children to be in an encouraging environment to increase the diversity of their palate. However, too much encouragement or pressure to eat more fruit and vegetables has been associated with lower intakes of these foods, and higher intakes of dietary fats (1, 2). Although children who see their parents and/or friends eating various fruits and vegetables increase their own intake of the same fruits and vegetables they witnessed being consumed (3).
Understandably, kids will eat a lot of the same food groups as their parents. A recent study looked at the overall diet quality of families (rather than just particular food groups), finding a significant association between parents' diet quality and their children's dietary patterns (4). This suggests that if parents have a poor quality diet, it is much more likely their children's overall diet will consist of more frequent consumption of less healthy foods, that is, unhealthy snacks. But what's so bad about snacks? The 'snacking habit' goes hand-in-hand with a higher energy intake, lower fruit/vegetable intake and a higher intake of soft-drinks and fast-foods, and in turn, are associated with higher rates of childhood obesity (5). So try to steer clear of those unnecessary biscuits and cakes!
It's not just what you eat, but when and how you eat. For example, infrequent meals times, eating in the living room or bedroom, constant snacking, portion sizes, fussy eaters - they are all behaviours that can lead to undesirable and/or unhealthy eating behaviours later in life. So how much of your behaviours really rub off on your kids? Well, according to the amount of studies out there on the subject, the answer is: A lot.
Family meal habits have a direct relationship on children's dietary quality. Children who eat together with their family at meals times eat more fruits and veggies, and eating while watching TV has also been associated with a higher consumption of soft drinks and chips. Even eating in a room that is not traditionally associated with the consumption of a meal, for example, the bedroom, has been linked to poorer diet quality (6). There are also affects of offering a 'child-friendly' menu that differs from your own dinner plate. This is a common coping strategy for parents whose children are frequently fussy eaters. Though, let's not forget how child-friendly menus are typically much lower in nutritional value than the family meal, and on top of that, they are decreasing their fruit and vegetable intake and reducing exposure and tolerance to new foods (7).
Using treats as a reward:
Using food as a reward may also have inadvertent effects in that rewarding children for consuming healthy foods actually results in decreased preference for those foods. The theory is that if you offer a reward for eating vegetables, then vegetables must not by tasty, and eating them must deserve a reward, therefore decreasing the likelihood of independent consumption. Consistent and frequent exposure to new foods, however, promotes acceptance and tolerance of those foods (8).
What's the take home message?
While there's so many things to constantly be aware of and keep in mind, the important part is to understand your kids pick up a lot more on your eating habits than what you may realise, and small dietary behaviours, such as when, where or how you eat, can have a lasting affect on your children's own eating habits. The best thing to do is to lead by example; if you want your kids to eat more fruit throughout the day when they're hungry, make sure they see you eating some too. If you want your kids to like a certain food and have healthy relationships with those foods, refrain from using sweets as rewards and just be consistent about putting little bit and pieces on their plate. And just remember that higher fruit and vegetable intake is associated with family meal times in a room traditionally associated with meals, no television during meal time, and only cooking one dinner for you and your family - no separate meals for the kids!
Having finished her Masters in Human Nutrition at Deakin University, Sarah, our in house Nutritionist has jumped onboard to help answer the common questions we are asked as trainers, coaches and health professionals.