Do Healthy Eating Habits Start at Home?

June 01, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Conventional wisdom tells us that to change the eating habits of
children, you need to get to the parents. (And I hope that’s true,
because I’m working hard with my kid.) We talk to people in schools and
hear all the time that they can’t get their students to try XXXX (fill
in the blank here with your favorite veggie, lean meat, or soy-based
vegan product) because the kids never had it at home. Schools can’t
change because they need parents to change first!

But a recent study is challenging this notion.

“Child-parent dietary resemblance in the U.S. is relatively weak, and
varies by nutrients and food groups and by the types of parent-child
dyads and social demographic characteristics such as age, gender and
family income,” said Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor with the Bloomberg School’s Center for Human Nutrition… “Our
findings indicate that factors other than family and parental eating
behaviors may play an important role in affecting American children’s
dietary intakes.”

While the study didn’t identify all the factors, it did highlight what seemed to be important areas — including community and school, food environment, peer influence and television
viewing, as well as individual factors such as self-image and
self-esteem.

Of course, this is not saying
that parents do not affect their kids’ nutritional choices, only that
parents are among many influences on children’s eating and their impact
may not be as strong as many believe. Further, it says that “for
interventions targeting parents, those would be more effective when
targeted at mothers, minority groups, and as early as possible in
childhood.”

What I take away from this is that focusing in
the school environment is as important as ever. Schools can play a
major role in shaping children’s eating habits, no matter what children
are eating at home, watching on TV or talking about with their friends.

And as we know from our community partners, some of the best programs
to promote healthy eating at school are those that involve parents as
well as students. Our friends at Namaste Charter School, for example,
invite parents to attend a weekly Friday breakfast [pdf] that includes tips on relevant health topics. Our own experience working as part of the Partnership to Reduce Disparities in Asthma and Obesity in Latino Schools showed us how powerful parent advocacy can be in bringing about healthy changes throughout entire communities.

We all — schools included — play a role in making sure children have
healthy meals and are prepared to make healthy choices as they grow
older.