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Parents/Caregivers as Agents of Change for Children’s Diets

Sunday, May 1, 2022

When rushing around, living life day to day, parents and caregivers may not give a lot of thought to how much influence they have over the foods children eat now – and in the future. Man, woman and two children gather around the counter cooking.


“This extends beyond merely choosing and serving their food or talking to them about the foods they are consuming,” said Ashlea Braun, Oklahoma State University Extension nutrition specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Humans learn in social contexts, meaning we learn from observing others. Research shows that the quality of a child’s diet is related to the diet quality of their caregivers.”


Does the diet of the parent/caregiver adhere to the United States Dietary Guidelines and include adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables? If not, then the child’s may not. Or, are the adults intentionally modeling healthy eating?


“Modeling healthy eating includes behaviors such as intentionally trying to eat healthy food in front of children or displaying excitement about eating healthy foods,” she said. “Research has shown for years that having family meals together can influence the diet of children. However, it’s not just eating together, but what you’re eating together as a family, and children observing their caregivers making healthy choices.”


Modeling these behaviors in front of children can help build their confidence to eat healthier while shaping norms about eating. In addition, children like to have autonomy – they like to make their own decisions. By encouraging children to eat healthier foods via social cues and modeling, parents/caregivers can encourage such choices while honoring autonomy.


Braun said this is a better approach than trying to get children to eat foods via force. In fact, research indicates this can create a great deal of tension between families at mealtime.


In addition to the concept of modeling via observation, if parents/caregivers adopt higher-quality eating patterns, they’re more likely to have higher quality foods present in the home. In turn, this makes children more familiar with these healthier choices, leading children to consume those foods both in and out of the home.


Some research takes it even further, examining the presence and/or absence of traditional healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and those considered less healthy, such as foods rich in added sugars.


“Unfortunately, our desire to consumes those less-than-healthy choices can be powerful given those foods are generally very appealing and palatable,” Braun said. “Having those foods present in excess can overpower our potential desire or intention to consume healthier choices. Social and environmental cues are important, and some research suggests these cues can be more impactful than merely setting rules about eating ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods.”


The effects hold true for both younger and older children and can be particularly important as older children are exposed to more and more external food environments that can shape their eating, including restaurants, ads on television, and other social influences.

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