Beyond Peanut Butter

Following a recent cooking demonstration in Los Angeles, an audience member asked celebrity chef Tyler Florence, “How can we get our children to eat vegetables?” The audience heaved a collective, knowing groan. Mr. Florence, himself a father, answered with some hesitation. “Well, you could try making them interesting: perhaps carrots with peanut butter or other raw vegetables with dips.” This Vision contributor (there with her vegetable-loving teenage daughter) later suggested to him that involving children in the entire process—growing or shopping for the vegetables, then preparing, cooking and eating them together—had been successful in her experience. Those within earshot seemed a bit surprised, as though this were a new concept.

Parents who want to help their children be healthy and grow into healthy adults often seem at a loss as to how to achieve that goal. The fact is that it begins in infancy. No one doubts that what a mother eats and drinks during gestation and while nursing affects the immediate health of her offspring. But it also affects the baby’s taste and nutritional preferences. By extension, this has an effect on the future health of the child.

In time the mother’s direct influence on a child’s nutritional choices wanes. Typically the mother is still responsible for stocking the pantry and making the meals, but her influence extends much farther than that: the choices an older child makes when his or her mother isn’t watching are affected more than Mom might imagine by her own personal health choices. That bowl of ice cream and bag of chips consumed in front of the television do not go unnoticed. Likewise, children take note when Mom reaches for a fresh apple and a big drink of water after a bike ride. Parents can easily underestimate the power of example. It’s what they do, not what they say, that affects the health of the next generation.

The journal Pediatrics published a study of the diets of 192 girls and their mothers in June 2001. The findings were revealing. Those girls with high-fat diets were more likely to have mothers who had tried to coerce them into more healthful eating patterns by restricting unhealthy or high-fat food—food the mothers themselves were eating. The abstract of the study concludes, “Mothers’ own eating may be more influential than their attempts to control the intake of their daughters.”

And that influence is not limited to food. The Journal of Nutrition (February 2001) reported that as sodas and sugary drinks usurp the place of essential water in the diets of adults, children are watching and following suit. Additionally, unhealthful habits like smoking are often taken up by the children of smokers. Parents who do not exercise regularly are more likely to have children who are inactive. The Mayo Clinic agrees: “You . . . encourage your child to be physically active every day if you make it a priority yourself.”

These findings all point to one inescapable factor: for parents to be positive role models, they need to be there and be involved. Mothers who spend time with their children give them advantages in many areas of health. According to a June 2004 study published by the USDA’s Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program, “compared with children of nonworking mothers, children of full-time working mothers have lower overall HEI (Healthy Eating Index) scores, lower intake of iron and fiber, and higher intake of soda . . . even after taking into account differences in maternal and other family characteristics.” These disadvantages may result from the high percentage of meals purchased and consumed by families of working parents with little time or energy to cook healthful meals themselves. The study adds, “It should be noted that the nutritional implications of mother’s employment do not end with children’s food intake, energy balance, and food sufficiency. More distal outcomes include dental caries, biochemical indicators of nutritional status, cognitive development, and physical growth.”

It should be added that it isn’t only the mother’s example or degree of involvement that affects children. A study reported by HealthDay (May 5, 2007) showed that “fathers with permissive . . . or disengaged parenting styles were more likely to have overweight or obese children, while fathers with a consistent . . . style were less likely to have children with a higher body mass index (BMI).”

So, how do we get children to eat their vegetables? Be a positive role model. Yes, tasty dips and peanut butter may lure unsuspecting children into eating vegetables hiding underneath, but the next generation’s long-term healthy lifestyle choices depend on parents who are willing to live a healthy lifestyle themselves. Experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest leisurely family meals as a good way to start. They sum it up very simply: “Your actions teach your child what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat.”