Family Matters

Want Your Kids to Eat Healthier? It Starts with Mom

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Kids are notorious for being picky eaters. But whether moms view them that way can determine whether they end up eating enough fruits and veggies, according to new research published recently in the journal Public Health Nursing.

Toddlers were less likely to eat fruits and vegetables four or more times a week if their moms didn’t model that behavior or if their moms labeled them picky eaters, defined as kids who steer clear of unfamiliar foods.

Just the perception that a child is a picky eater could lead moms to not offer healthy foods, according to research led by Mildred Horodynski, a professor of nursing of Michigan State University’s College of Nursing. Encouraging moms to eat healthier could result in their children following suit. (More on Time.comStudy: You Are What Your Dad Ate)

Toddlers should be eating two to three servings of fruits and veggies each day, but the children in the study were barely getting that in a week. What were they getting? Too many calories from low-nutrient foods, which leads to chunky children.

“French fries are still the number one ‘vegetable’ that our little toddlers are eating,” says Horodynski. “What toddlers ate mirrored what their mothers ate, and unfortunately our moms didn’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.”

Even if kids don’t thrill to the sight of broccoli in their bowl, parents shouldn’t write them off as vegetable-averse; research has shown that kids may need to try a new food up to 15 times before accepting it.

The study — which looked at close to 400 black and white low-income Michigan women with kids between the ages of 1 and 3 who were enrolled in Early Head Start programs — also found that black mothers and their children ate fewer fruits and vegetables than their white counterparts. (More on Time.comMore Muppets? The New ‘Superfoods’ Want Kids to Eat Healthy)

For low-income parents, in particular, access to fruits and vegetables may be a large part of the problem. They’re more expensive than processed foods, but buying cheaper frozen vegetables is preferable to buying no vegetables.

The key to cementing good nutrition is starting early. “Kids start forming preferences as early as seven or eight months,” she says. “By 24 months, they know what they like and if not served vegetables, they won’t like vegetables.”

Moms, that means it’s time to put down the potato chips and cut up some carrot sticks. Toddlers are copycats, so it makes sense that they might do as theirs moms do.

“You taste something, they taste something,” says Horodynski. “It’s not enough to just put peas on their plate.” (More on Time.comBaby Getting Heavy? The Culprit May Be in the Bottle)

Yet search long enough, and it’s not hard to find research that has concluded exactly the opposite of another study’s findings. That’s the case with a recent analysis in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that scanned the results of 24 studies about what parents and children eat and found that parental influence takes a distinct back seat to other factors.

Parents do set the nutrition agenda at home since they’re the ones preparing the food, but their sway ends there. A multitude of other factors — including advertising, what food is available and when, what their friends eat and eating outside the home  — combine to overpower their influence.

Still, Youfa Wang, the study’s lead author, agrees with Horodynski’s premise that what mom — and dad — does matters. Parents shouldn’t just give up. “Make healthier food available at home,” Yang told The New York Times. “Put it on the table every day, and try different ways to prepare food, especially vegetables. Parents can still have an important impact.”

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