Conducting kitchen experiments to hide vegetables in your kids’ food is practically a rite of passage for parents these days. Have you shoved yet another forkful of steamed broccoli into your own mouth, with a fake smile plastered on your face for the whole family to see, to set a good example? Or whirred leafy kale and spinach into breakfast smoothies? Check and check. (Still want to pull out your hair, like me? Check.)
Well, there might be a tool in your house more suited than your blender at getting the job done, and his name is Dad.
It turns out that at the dinner table—and actually, everywhere else kids see you eat—a father’s food modelling (in other words, what he puts in his mouth) has more influence than mothers on what their children consume.
“It does look like dads matter, and in some cases they might actually matter more than moms,” says Jess Haines, associate director of the Guelph Family Health Study. Launched at the University of Guelph in Ontario about two years ago, the massive study is following 3,000 families over 10 to 20 years to identify risk factors for obesity and chronic disease early in life. It will also test a slate of interventions—behaviour changes that have historically been aimed just at moms—that researchers hope will put whole families on a healthy track, from early toddler years onward.
One aspect of the study, which involves families with children from 18 months to five years old, looks specifically at links between family members’ relationship with food and nutritional outcomes in children. Recent preliminary results from the pilot group, which included 41 mostly hetero, dual-parent families, reveal that while moms are more committed than dads to modelling good food behaviours in front of kids (we are much more likely to deliberately choke down healthy foods that aren’t our favourite for their benefit), dads’ choices have more of an impact.
“It really just hammers home the fact that dads are important within the home environment, and a little bit of work involving them can really go a long way in terms of a child’s nutrition,” says Jessica Watterworth, an undergraduate student in applied human nutrition who based her thesis project on the results. “It’s more meaningful for the kids when they see your husband do it.”
If you’re wondering how all this was measured, here’s more on the researchers’ methods: Each family participating in the study was given a long series of questionnaires to fill out in addition to being asked to submit to blood, saliva and other metabolic testing that measures body mass, body fat and more. The questionnaire identified 12 feeding practises (including child control, emotion regulation, encouraging balance and variety, home environment, food as rewards, involvement, modelling, monitoring, pressure, restriction for health and restriction for weight control) and parents self-reported whether they disagreed, agreed or strongly agreed with several questions. (i.e. “I eat healthy foods that aren’t my favourite in front of my kids,” or, “My child should always eat all the food on his plate.”)
Before moms throw up their arms and resign altogether from pushing greens, it’s worth knowing that Watterworth’s analysis doesn’t discount all of our hard work. In fact, it shows that moms are the overwhelming champions of healthy eating in most households. And in households where both parents are on the same page about how their family should eat, kids are less likely to become obese.
Watterworth’s findings ought to be a wakeup call to researchers, who’ve typically placed the blame for bad food habits—and the responsibility to change them—on moms’ shoulders.
“Historically, moms have been the gatekeepers, the ones that take care of the kids and do most of the cooking,” Watterworth says. “This finding really drives home the point that intervention strategies that only target moms are a lost opportunity. Fathers are around the house more now and helping with feeding in particular.”
Who does most of the cooking in your house? If Dad isn’t that involved in mealtimes, perhaps it’s time for him to step up to the (dinner) plate.
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