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UD research shows a link between parent and child diet quality

The National School Lunch Program.

Plenty of efforts are made in schools and elsewhere to get children to eat better, but new research suggests maybe those efforts need to focus more on parents.

The relationship between parent and child diet quality is the subject of a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It indicates children don’t seem to be meeting dietary recommendations. Researchers looked at what’s happening at home as a possible reason why.


“I think oftentimes when we do any thinking about a child’s nutrition, we always need to be including the parent,” said Shannon Robson, an assistant professor in the University of Delaware's department of behavioral health and nutrition and one of the study’s authors. “So specifically we see this with younger children. I will say that’s a little bit different as we get to older children who are making their own dietary choices but I think where that really comes from is the child is in the home environment and typically it’s the caregiver who is purchasing the food that’s coming into that environment.”


Robson, who is also a dietician,said conversations about child nutrition tend to miss the role parents play.


“You know if you look into the home environment, yes (we can) help parents in thinking about  how do they create a healthy home environment that would have these foods for kids,” Robson said. “But then they go to school, they may go to daycare, they’re in other settings as well that we need to constantly be thinking about what types of foods are they being offered and what foods are available to them.”


School meals, for example, are based off of dietary guidelines. Angela Pineault, a spokeswoman for the Delaware Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said they have nutritional requirements as well as requirements limiting the amount of sodium and total fat.


“They are very regulated,” Pineault said. “There’s a great deal of planning that goes into options that students like or dislike. You want to provide a meal that tastes good to students so they eat it but it also has to meet a whole host of requirements as a school meal and receive the federal funding to help subsidize the cost of that.”


From her own experience in speaking with families and students, Pineault said she feels children are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables.


And there’s a fair amount of research to back that up in the age group Robson and fellow researchers examined — they looked at children ages six through 12. In the study, researchers assessed the parent-child diet quality relationship of nearly 700 families. Trained staff conducted up to three random 24-hour dietary recalls over the phone, tracking their food intake and estimates.


“What they (children) are really doing is they’re depending upon their parents essentially to make the choices in terms of what foods are being offered to them,” Robson said.

Robson said overall this is a reminder to think about how policies — both societal and environmental — can be changed to influence diet choices made by families.