Do you feel like you’re constantly harping on your children to eat their vegetables? Does it feel like candy is the only thing they’ll willingly eat?
As a mom, it can be frustrating. Getting your kids to choke down their vegetables can be one thing, but reaching the point they make this decision on their own is an entirely different issue.
But thankfully, as the mom of the house, we have the opportunity to influence our family’s nutrition. I’ve spoken to many women who say their husband or significant other has changed his eating habits as a result of her’s.
I want to share with you the philosophy of trickle down nutrition. It’s nothing new and it’s not complicated. But the concept explains the powerful impact of your actions. It’s not a magic pill and it can take awhile to take effect. But a mother’s influence is powerful.
The frustration of poor dietary habits among your family
Thanks to technology, today we have more access to information than ever before. Unfortunately, this education hasn’t translated into healthier habits.
The average family’s dietary consumption can be a point of frustration for healthcare professionals. But even more concerning are the results of these eating habits.
Research has found that infants 4 to 24 month old often eat large amounts of developmentally inappropriate, energy-dense, nutrient poor foods. The same research revealed that 18% to 33% of infants and toddlers don’t consume any servings of vegetables on a typical day. It’s no wonder that childhood obesity rates for ages 2 to 19 years old currently sit at 18.5%.
Today, 1 out of every 6 children are obese. That equates to over 12 million obese children in the U.S. Chubby toddlers may be one thing, but the cuteness quickly wears off when the unhealthy habits begin to impact the child’s life.
Obesity leads to an increased risk of health problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are both risk factors for heart disease. Obesity can also cause sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and chronic health conditions such as asthma and type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately, these habits are often carried into adulthood. Our eating habits that we maintain today started as a child. The sad reality is that obese children are likely to grow up to be obese adults who suffer from a lifetime of health problems associated with obesity.
This is why it’s important to lay a healthy foundation for our children. Obesity doesn’t just impact a child’s physical health. What we put into our mouths can impact our self-esteem. Obese children are at increased risk of being bullied and suffering from depression, while a healthy diet and physical activity in childhood is associated with better mental health.
Not surprisingly, obesity has been linked to body dissatisfaction. A study published in 2004 showed a direct relationship between children’s diet and body satisfaction.
Parental influence on children’s eating habits
We’re all aware that a child’s eating habits are impacted by the habits of the parent. But a study of parents’ impact on children's eating habits suggests that the impact goes beyond the parent’s dietary practice. Their food philosophy can also play a role.
“Parents actively make food choices for the family, serve as models for dietary choices and patterns, and use feeding practices to reinforce the development of eating patterns and behaviours that they deem appropriate. Additionally, parenting practices are often a response to parents' perceived threats to their children's health and development. [...] food scarcity has historically been the major threat to children's health and development and traditional feeding practices have developed accordingly. In this context, many societies perceive larger infants as healthy and a sign of successful parenting. Therefore, feeding strategies in these societies are designed to increase children's intake, reduce distress and promote weight gain. However, when these strategies persist in environments with over-abundance of food, they tend to promote unhealthy diets, accelerated weight gain, and obesity.”
Research focusing on the role of parents suggest that: “Parental attitudes must certainly affect their children indirectly through the foods purchased for and served in the household […] influencing the children’s exposure and […] their habits and preferences.”
As parents, we can impact our children's’ dietary habits in several ways: By the foods we provide in the home, by the way we monitor their intake, and by the way we react to food.
“Research also indicates that children may not only model their parents’ food intake, but also their attitudes to food and their body dissatisfaction. Research therefore emphasizes the role of observational learning with a particular role for parental attitudes and behaviour.”
A mother’s influence on children’s eating habits
Clearly, as parents, we have an impact on what our children decide to eat. But, as mothers, research suggests we have an even greater influence.
A 2002 study about the relation between mothers' child-feeding practices concluded that, “The relation between certain aspects of mothers' behaviors and total fat mass indicates that preventive interventions for childhood obesity need to include strategies that target mothers' behaviors.”
In 2010, Mildred Horodynski, a professor at the Michigan State College of Nursing, studied 400 women with children between the ages of 1 to 3.
She found that toddlers were less likely to consume fruits and vegetables four or more times a week if their mothers did not consume that amount. Children were also less prone to consume these whole foods if their mothers viewed the child as a “picky” eater.
"What and how mothers eat is the most direct influence on what toddlers eat," Horodynski said. "Health professionals need to consider this when developing strategies to increase a child's consumption of healthy foods. Diets low in fruit and vegetables even at young ages pose increased risks for chronic diseases later in life."
"Special attention must be given to family-based approaches to incorporating fruits and vegetables into daily eating habits," she said. "Efforts to increase mothers' fruit and vegetable intake would result in more positive role modeling."
Personal experience at home
But, I don’t think it takes scholarly research to explain the health problems of today’s children. The symptoms can be found in our pantries, refrigerators, and cupboards.
Dietary habits can be very emotional. After a stressful week we tend to reward ourselves with our favorite snack. Or when we’re sad we drown our feelings in a pint of our favorite ice cream.
Food plays an important role in every society. Exclusive of age and region, food is an important part of our culture. That’s why I think it’s imperative we get it right at home.
One thing that I’ve personally implemented (and it’s the only “food rule” we have) is that they must eat their veggies. They can leave everything else on their plate, but their veggies are non negotiable. And if they don’t eat their veggies it becomes their next snack.
At first, when they each were younger, I got some push back but now, it’s a non issue. For the most part they eat their veggies without complaining and even ask for seconds!
It doesn’t have to be a battle every single, time but it does take consistency and follow through.
When I go and eat lunch at school with my oldest I love checking out what the kid’s in her class are bringing for lunch. Honestly, it breaks my heart that often not one child will have veggies. And most are eating exclusively prepackaged foods.
If we don’t teach our kids good nutrition and the value and importance of eating fruits and veggies who will?
That’s why it is so important to talk to our kids about nutrition and teach them how to eat balanced meals so they can then in turn grow up to be healthy adults who aren’t constantly trying to lose weight or “figure out how to eat.”
Personal experience with clients
Moms, and women in general, have a large impact on our household. From our husbands or significant others down to our children – the choices we make about food impact our family.
So many clients have told me about their personal experience with this: When they cleaned up their nutrition, they begin to see it taken affect in the lives of their family members.
Listen to what Christine, one of my clients, had to say: “I took my family and Mom along on this journey and their mindsets changed along with mine – even my sweet boys of 10 and 7. And other family members are asking questions about how they can eat better. I have seen it have a pond ripple effect on my life and for that I am so grateful.”
You’ll be surprised by the impact that your choice has on those around you.
How to implement trickle down nutrition
The trickle down nutrition philosophy is simple: As the mom of the house your food choices directly impact the nutrition of your children (and your husband). But you need to know a few things.
1. It begins with Mom
First, realize that it all begins with you, Mom. Your family will follow your actions, not your words. It doesn’t hurt to make a calendar of meals for the week, but your greatest impact will come when your children see you eating healthy options.
2. It’s not too late
Secondly, realize it’s never too late. But you need to start now – not Monday. Maybe you’re thinking your kids are too old to start impacting their decisions. It might be more difficult to start with older kids, but it’s not too late.
3. Begin with a clean slate
Thirdly, if you’re just starting out, begin with a clean slate. Clean out your pantry and fridge (don’t wait until you’ve eaten all your junk food to start) to help you and your family start on the right foot. Not only is it good to start right away, but psychologically this will help you break the hold junk food might currently have on you.
4. Start with one thing at a time
Start with one thing at a time – don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed. Especially if you’re just now starting to clean up your family’s nutrition.
Here a few simple ways you can start to encourage healthy habits:
Have family meals together
Don’t forget to be the role model
Keep a variety of healthy options in the house
Serve three meals each day
Provide healthy snacks in between each meal
Encourage your children to drink water instead of sodas and juices
5. Make eating healthy appealing
You might remember when your parents tried to get you to eat healthy as a kid. You probably recall bland, boring options. Back then, the thought of “healthy” food brought to mind plain broccoli, canned peas, or dried out chicken.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with chicken and broccoli. But if you’re wanting to help your children develop healthy habits, help them realize that eating healthy can mean enjoying delicious foods. Make eating healthy appealing.
And if you need extra help with this, grab one of my meal plans where I’ve laid out everything for you to have complete success!
Together we can change the epidemic
Habits are created when your children are young. Adults don’t all of a sudden reach adulthood and develop unhealthy relationships with food – it’s a philosophy that is developed at a young age.
As their mom, you can help your kids start out right and develop these healthy habits. What’s one thing you’re committed to do today to help create healthy habits in your children?
About the author:
Kara Swanson is a certified nutritionist and founder of Life Well Lived. She is married to her best friend and the proud mother of three. Her passion is to make nutrition simple+easy+delicious!