Kids Are Influenced by Parents' Food Choices

A new study finds that parents control 72 percent of what their families eat, for better or worse.

Allow me to introduce you to a mom in upstate New York downing a pizza the size of a bike tire. And a Wisconsin dad dipping cheese fries in ranch dressing. And two parents munching fried calamari with tartar sauce on a sunny California boardwalk. What do they have in common? All uttered this statement to me: "I can't control what my kids eat!" Mind you, all of them were with their kids at the time. And, in fact, they were controlling what their offspring ate—just not for the better.

My Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University recently studied more than 400 parents in the U.S. and Canada who buy and prepare most of the food their families eat at home—the so-called
Nutritional Gatekeepers. (I bet you're one of them, or you wouldn't be reading this.) We found that, on average, they controlled 72 percent of what their families eat—for better or worse. It's for better if they have fresh fruit on the kitchen counter instead of cookies. Or if they send their kid to school with carrots, multigrain crackers, and a cheese stick for snack, instead of just saying, "Buy what you want."

What if they don't take a banana, or eat the packed snack? Chalk it up to the 28 percent you don't control. At least you gave them a healthy option they might not otherwise have considered. And therein lies the power of the Nutritional Gatekeeper—offering good choices. If we want our kids to eat better, we need to show them how it's done. If we munch our way through a giant bag of potato chips while watching The Biggest Loser, why shouldn't they?

Another example: Because I'm not a coffee drinker, I down a diet soda every morning. "Gross," you might think. I don't agree, but here's what's finally making me reconsider this 30-year-old habit. Every time I have a can in my hand, my two daughters ask for a sip. They don't beg for diet soda when I'm not around. So it turns out, we do influence what our kids eat, more than we think. It's just a matter of whether that's for the better—or worse.

Brian Wansink, PhD, is a professor and the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. To learn more about his work, log on to MindlessEating.org.

Originally published in the April 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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