Childhood is the prime time for laying the foundations of positive and life-long healthy eating habits. A report from a group of experts, Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating, shows the key role of families in building good eating habits in children. Every month, we will bring you a summary post, highlighting some of the key messages taken from this report, in order to help families nurture healthier eating habits.
Considering that the vast majority of meals is taken at home, the quality and accessibility of foods available in the home may play a fundamental role in building healthy habits in children.
“It is essential that families are made aware of the importance of bringing healthy foods into their homes and ensuring their children have access to them.”
The importance of the home environment
In the United States, adults consume around 65 to 72% of the daily energy intake at home, making it a key place to build family healthy eating habits. The quality and quantity of foods available in the home are therefore playing a great role on the health and eating behaviors of all family members. The foods available at home will depend on many factors such as the family resources (financial as emotional), food accessibility, meal preparations…
Family resources influence the home food environment
Family resources, including the financial income as well as the educational level of parents, will contribute to shape the types of foods available in the home.
The family financial incomes and the cost of foods are the main factors influencing the types of foods parents bring into the home. The cost of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish may be usually higher than the costs of high-energy foods such as refined grains, foods with added sugars and fat.
In addition to purchasing power, low-income families may face financial costs and time barriers as parents may have multiple jobs and little time to prepare meals and eat with their children, resulting in higher consumption of fast food or easy-to-prepare meals.
While income has a role to play in the availability of healthy foods in the home, it is not the only factor: unhealthy foods are found in both low-income and high-income families.
Emotional environment affects the quality of family diets
Studies show that the emotional environment may have a major impact on the quality of the family’s diet. Indeed, high levels of parental stress, caused by variety of factors (economic pressure, work and family responsibilities, time restraints…) have been associated with less frequent family meals, more frequent consumption of fast food and sweetened drinks. As stress levels increase, family meals will also become less healthy and children’s weight increases. As much as possible, it is important to try to provide an enjoyable and positive home food environment.
Healthy foods in the home for healthy dietary choices
Food available in the home has a significant impact on children’s dietary choices. At home, parents are gatekeepers and can guide children to the healthy option. According to the experts, a healthy diet that parents can give to their children is a balanced diet with a variety of healthy and nutrient-dense foods in healthy amounts.
Providing healthy foods at home makes children more likely to choose and enjoy the healthy option. Studies show that children eat more fruits and vegetables when there are more healthy foods in the home. Conversely, the availability of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods makes young family members more likely to opt for sweet and savoury snacks and to consume more high-calories drinks.
The risk of obesity of both parents and children has been associated with the food available in the home. Therefore, it is essential that parents be aware of the importance of trying to provide as much healthy foods as possible in the home.
Making healthy foods accessible
In addition to having healthy foods available in the home, accessibility affects kids’ food choices. Accessibility is about providing foods in places and in forms that are easy to reach and to eat for children and it is also refer to appropriate portion sizes.
How to make healthy foods accessible?
- Make healthy foods the easy option: Prepare healthy foods so they are appealing and easy to eat. For instance, children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they are peeled and cut.
- Make healthy foods the happy option: Include healthy foods at the centre of happy occasions such as family celebrations or birthdays, this can help children think of healthy foods as happy foods. For example this summer for your evenings with friends or family, make a tasty yogurt sauce to dip sticks of vegetables.
- Make water accessible: Ensure that plain water is always easily accessible to ensure children’s hydration.
- Adapt portions: Adapt portion sizes to the age of children, pay attention and respect their signals of satiety and hunger. Offer smaller portions for less healthy foods and snacks.
Cues for eating in the home influence food choices
Home is the place of many eating signals that will influence immediate food intake and shape the establishment of habits about what, when and how much to eat. Since parents are role models and establish rules about feeding, they provide important eating cues to their children.
However, at home, television viewing is also particularly a powerful cue for children: food advertisements offers cues to eat even in the absence of hunger and promotes the consumption of less healthful foods. Reducing access to television seems to be an important lever for reducing the risk of obesity probably due to related sedentary behaviours and food advertising.
The place of yogurt in a healthy food environment
Yogurt has been associated with a variety of health benefit. Several studies have suggested an inverse correlation between dairy products consumption and BMI. Children who frequently consume yogurt (at least one serving per week) have a better quality diet and a better metabolic profile including a better insulin profile. Therefore, having yogurt at home could be a valuable tool to improve children’s diet and help them choose healthy food options.
Making healthy foods affordable is a challenge: nutrient-rich foods (meat, fish, dairies…) are usually more expensive than energy-dense foods (refined grains, sweets, fats…). However, yogurt is quite an exception, this healthy food provides more nutrients especially calcium and proteins than calories and is cheaper than meat, poultry or fish. Therefore yogurt has its place in a healthy food environment: it is a nutrient-dense, affordable and accessible food.
Since home is the main place where children eat, the home food environment should provide healthy and accessible foods to children to help them make healthy food choices.
Pleasure is one of the important factors that determines why and what we eat, we will discuss its influence on our food choices next month… Stay tuned!
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