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.
Children depend on their parents and caregivers for their food choices and behaviours, and parents, through their attitudes, actions and knowledge, influence children‘s food behaviours.
“By being positive role models, parents are instilling eating habits that their child is likely to carry into adult life.”
Culture influences feeding behaviours
Parents generally encourage their children to adopt goals and values that they believe will help them make appropriate choices in their daily lives as they grow older and become more independent. In this global process, called “socialisation”, parents will help their children adopt eating practices, values, and behaviours that are practiced and accepted both by their immediate family and their surrounding culture.
Parents’ knowledge about nutrition and what is healthy or not will influence the food choices they offer their children. As eating food is about nutrition, pleasure, identity and socialisation, it may vary across cultures, reflecting local practices, beliefs and food availability. For example, British parents tend to put emphasis on health and nutrient quality in their food education, while French parents will value the development of taste and pleasure.
Culture affects not only how parents feed their children but also how they perceive healthy eating habits and a healthy weight. Parental education is key to informing them about healthy eating habits. They also have to be aware of the key role they play, not only as caregivers, but also as role models.
Parents are role models
Eating is a social experience and children will build their eating habits and behaviours by imitating their parents and caregivers. Parents therefore become role models for their children. In addition to adopting a positive feeding style and practices, being positive role models may be an effective way for parents to help children build healthy eating habits – by setting a good example.
First, parents are role models in terms of diet quality, as the quality of the parents’ diet has an impact on the quality of the children’s diet. Children whose parents eat more healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables are likely to eat more healthy foods themselves.
However, it is not only about quality but also about quantity: the daily mean energy intake of children . Parental energy intake, food preferences and habits influence the quality and the quantity of food available in the home. This home food environment plays a great role in building healthy habits in children by determining what foods are available to children.
Parents are ideally placed to steer children in the right direction by adopting healthy eating habits. They have a positive influence in the establishment of family norms around meal and snacking patterns.
Being a positive role model has long-term consequences: children are likely to maintain their healthy eating habits into adulthood.
How to be a positive role model in daily life
Here are some tips to help parents be positive role models for their children:
- Adopt a healthy diet: The more healthy foods you eat, the more they will eat. You can change eating habits gradually by swapping some products for others which are just as tasty but more “healthy”. For example, you can swap energy-dense dessert for tasty nutrient-rich options like a plain yogurt with added pieces of fresh fruit. The benefit: yogurt is enjoyed by adults as much as by children, is nutrient-dense, and can be the basis of many personalized recipes…
- Enjoy healthy food and tell them: If children see you enjoying eating healthy food, they will be curious and they will tend to follow your example. Conversely, do not expect children to eat something you will not eat yourself! You have to keep in mind that repeated exposure to healthy foods such as yogurt, fruit or vegetables will help children learn to like healthy foods
- Eat together: Eating with your children is a perfect time to promote your love for healthy foods and your healthy eating habits: healthy foods choices with healthy amounts. Create an enjoyable environment in which children can associate healthy foods with pleasure.
- Engage children: Engage children in cooking healthy meals. It is a good way to talk about food and to make healthy foods more familiar. After cooking, children may want to try what they have prepared by themselves. For an easy way to get started, even with young children, you can suggest that they prepare yogurt bowls, with everyone choosing their own ingredients to mix into a plain yogurt (fruit, grains, cereals, etc.). It is easy, tasty, fun and healthy!
Parents shape the eating habits of their children because they learn by imitation. Parents are role models for them, and in order to build healthy eating habits in children, parents need to have healthy eating habits themselves. Adopting some new daily habits and eating tasty, nutrient-dense products like yogurt can be the first step towards building long-term healthy eating habits.
As parents are role models, eating together is a powerful opportunity for interaction where children can imitate and communicate with their parents. We will discuss its importance and benefits in more detail next month. Stay tuned!
Cardel M, Willig AL, Dulin-Keita A, et al. Parental feeding practices and socioeconomic status are associated with child adiposity in a multi-ethnic sample of children. Appetite 2012;58(1):347–353.
Caton SJ, Ahern SM, Hetherington MM. Vegetables by stealth: An exploratory study investigating the introduction of vegetables in the weaning period. Appetite 2011;57,816–825.
Huang SH, Parks EP, Kumanyika SK, et al. Child-feeding practices among Chinese-American and non-Hispanic white caregivers. Appetite 2012;58(3):922–927.
Lindsay AC, Sussner KM, Greaney ML, Peterson KE. Latina mothers’ beliefs and practices related to weight status, feeding, and the development of child overweight. Public Health Nurs 2011;28(2):107–118
Palfreyman Z, Haycraft E, Meyer C. Development of the parental modelling of eating behaviours scale (parm): links with food intake among children and their mothers. Matern Child Nutr 2014;10(4):617–29.
Robson S, Couch S, Peugh J, et al. Parent diet quality and energy intake are related to child diet quality and energy intake. J Acad Nutr Diet 2016;116(6):984–990.
Sherry B, McDivitt J, Birch LL, et al. Attitudes, practices, and concerns about child feeding and child weight status among socioeconomically diverse white, Hispanic, and African- American mothers. J Am Diet Assoc 2004;104:215–221.
Vaughn AE, Ward DS, Fisher JO, et al. Fundamental constructs in food parenting practices: a content map to guide future research. Nutr rev 2016;74(2):98–117.