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September 2023
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Does What’s for Dinner Matter?

Study Finds Peers, TV, Play Bigger Role in Kids’ Nutrition than Parents

Parents may not have as much of an influence on their children’s eating habits after all.

Parents may not have as much of an influence on their children’s eating habits after all.

According to a new report that’s published in the well-respected Social Science and Medicine journal, parents may not have as much of an influence on their children’s eating habits after all.

This study runs counter to many past studies that say otherwise.  For instance, a 2004 University of Minnesota study found that children who had dinner with their parents at least five days a week exhibited more healthy eating habits than those who didn’t.  The University of Minnesota conducted a similar study in 2009 and found the same thing, only this time it applied to all adolescents, as meal plans were more healthful and the regularity with which adolescents ate was much more wholesome than those who didn’t eat with their families.

And if that wasn’t enough, UCLA published a study this past winter that is in direct contradistinction to the report I’m about to tell you about.  They found that among 50 percent of cases, parents who drank soda regularly (i.e. every day) had kids who ate fast food regularly – as in every day!

While they also found that kids whose parents didn’t drink soda also had kids that ate a lot of fast food, it was far less frequent (in about one-third of cases).

So now comes as a study that says how parents eat amounts to nothing in terms of influence on their kids’ diet?  Hmmm…

To determine this, researchers examined and compared food intake questionnaires of over 16,000 people who were related in some way (comparing moms’ eating habits to the daughters’ eating habits, dads’ to sons’, etc.).  To see how closely diets resembled one another, researchers used a number of variables that were measured on a scale of -1 to +1.  A score of zero indicated no resemblance; a score of 1 indicated a perfect resemblance.

On average, the researchers found that there was very little resemblance, as scores among the participants ranged between 0.26 and 0.29.  Other comparisons were similarly bleak in their alikeness:  such as the amount of fat consumed between parent and same-sex child and total amount of calories consumed on a given day.

The researchers say that factors that have a greater influence on kids’ eating habits are peers in school, their knowledge of food in general, television-viewing, and self-esteem.

In short, to paraphrase the study’s lead author, parents don’t carry the same cache they once did in shaping their children’s chow choices.

As with virtually all studies, this one has positive and negative aspects to it.  I don’t doubt these researchers’ findings, but I don’t think they can be applied universally.

I say that because kids vary in how close they are with their parents, emotionally, in particular.  I grew up in a family that was very close, and what was served at the dinner table had a profound influence on my attitudes about food and the course of life I took in advocating for natural health.  But others aren’t emotionally connected at all with their family, and I think that had to factor into the findings of the researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

To some, this study suggests that parents shouldn’t worry about what they serve because it won’t affect their kids’ eating habits one way or another.  That’s not the way I view it.

Based on past studies mentioned, I firmly believe that parents have a big influence on their kids eating habits, but because things outside of the home now take up more time in the average adolescent’s life, parents aren’t as influential as they once were.

This should serve as a call to arms for parents to recommit themselves to their children’s lives, their nutritional lives particularly.  Don’t take this study as one that exonerates you from influencing how your kids eat; take it as one that motivates you to re-establish how you can shape your youngling’s noggin to eat healthfully.


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