Healthy Eating Starts with Parent Role Models

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Babies start imitating their parents almost immediately, smiling when they smile, making similar noises. Young children, too, mimic their parents, repeating what they say and imitating mannerisms.

Eating is no different, and the way parents talk about food, cook meals and eat are the most important influence of developing healthy eating habits on a child. Children watch and imitate adults and look to them to learn everything from saying please and thank-you to fitness and nutrition behavior.

Children can also pick up on their parents' attitudes about food. As role models, parents need to make sure they're demonstrating a healthy attitude toward food so their children do, too.

Teaching Healthy Habits at Mealtime

Dad and Son BreakfastResearch shows that family mealtimes have a big impact on how children eat as they grow into adulthood and start making food choices of their own. One study showed that children who eat meals with their parents tend to eat more fruit, vegetables and dairy products than children who don’t share meals with their families1.

Eating meals as a family is key to raising high-achieving, healthy and well-adjusted children. Family meals have been shown to improve academic achievement and self-esteem. Eating together also leads to more interest in nutrition: Silva found that teenagers tended to eat more "fun" foods with their friends, but looked forward to eating a more healthful evening meal with their families. Another study from 2007 found that kids who ate with their families had healthier overall diets than those who did not. As a result, these kids also tended to have a lower prevalence of overweight, too2.

Cooking family meals with your children can also be fun and educational and spark a life-long interest in cooking. One study demonstrated that cooking together also helped kid know how to make a "balanced" meal.

Model Healthy Eating

Kids will continue picking up your eating habits as they become teenagers, and will use the skills you teach them throughout their lives.

Mom and Daughter PicnicRole-modeling bad behavior can have an effect, too. One study found that the children of mothers who skipped breakfast and ate few fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, had low-quality diets3.

Try to avoid restricting foods or labeling them "good" or "bad" as doing so may actually increase your child's desire for these foods when you're not there to restrict them. A study found that when mothers restricted certain foods, their children (especially daughters) tended to overeat those foods when given a chance4.

Always maintain a healthy attitude toward food. Enjoy what you eat and let your kids know it's okay to eat all foods in moderation.

While it's unrealistic to expect any parent to be a perfect role model, try your best to demonstrate good eating habits and it will positively impact your child.

For more tips on how to encourage healthy eating in your children, check out our printable tip sheet.

1Larson N, Fulkerson J, Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D. Shared meals among young adults are associated with better diet quality and predicted by family meal patterns during adolescence. Public Health Nutr. 2012 3:1-11.
2Gable S, Chang Y, Krull JL. Television watching and frequency of family meals are predictive of overweight onset and persistence in a nation sample of school-aged children. J Am Diet Assoc, 2007. 107(1):53-61.
3Utter J, Denny S, Robinson E, Fleming T, et al. Family meals among New Zealand young people: Relationships between eating and body mass index. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012. S1499-4046.
4Goncalves S, Silva M, Gomes AR, Machado PP. Disordered eating among preadolescent boys and girls: the relationship with child and maternal variables. Nutrients, 2012. 4(4): 273-285.