Parenting Vivian | 09 Jun 2011 12:52 pm

Kids Learn Eating Habits by Watching Their Parents

The alarming rise in childhood obesity has spawned a lot of research into children’s eating habits and preferences. In a just published study of 120 children aged 2 to 6 years researchers found a distinct link between the children’s parents food preferences and that of the contents of the children’s pretend shopping carts. Not surprisingly kids learn eating habits from their parents.

This experiment was set up perfectly for children… what little one doesn’t love those toy grocery carts and plastic food? The team had each child take a turn in a play grocery store where there were a total of 133 choices, both healthy and not so healthy. In the meantime, the parents filled out questionnaires about how often they bought certain foods and drinks. All reported that they brought their children with them grocery shopping.

Most of the children did “buy” some sugary, salty snacks and desserts, but on average, the carts were filled with equal amounts of healthy and not so healthy foods. Remarkably, 35 of the subjects bought significantly more healthy items and less junk. The results pointed to the idea that the health-consciousness of a child’s toy shopping cart might in fact mirror what was found on a parents’ grocery list.

The findings, reported in the November 2008 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, suggests that even very young children don’t just mindlessly grab for sweets when they have the chance. Instead, they appear to be developing food preferences based on what they see Mom and Dad eating and buying at the store.

Those little ones are already making choices, paying closer attention than you realize to what you do.

“The data suggest that children begin to assimilate and mimic their parents’ food choices at a very young age, even before they are able to fully appreciate the implications of these choices,” write researchers led by Dr. Lisa A. Sutherland of Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Sutherland is a nutrition behavior and communication scientist who focuses on researching the impact of media and marketing on childhood obesity and tries to develop interventions that might help children and their families.

When it comes to food preferences, modeling good, healthy choices for your children seems to have some impact. So if you want them to choose more fruits and veggies have them in the house, and eat them yourself.

Try to think of the grocery store as a place to talk about healthy and unhealthy food choices, even with very young children as even at this age kids learn from your choices. While formal education about nutrition usually doesn’t begin until elementary school, there’s no reason to wait… and this research suggests the kids learn by picking up clues anyway, so why not make them the right ones?

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