Chew on This: Kids Eating Better at School but Worse at Home
Jan. 10, 2001 -- June Cleaver would pitch a fit, but in the real world more and more of us eat parked squarely in front of a TV set. So what's the harm in that? Well, maybe to kids' diets, according to a new study that finds that children who watch television during meals tend to eat more junk food -- pizza, salty snacks, and soda -- and fewer healthy fruits and vegetables than do kids in families that take the TV out of TV dinners.
But not all of today's nutrition news is bad: School lunches are leaner and more nutritious these days then they were a decade ago, according to a government report released Wednesday.
It's well known that a lifetime of healthy eating habits begins in childhood and that diets high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables are linked to risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and obesity. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are the main reasons that childhood obesity is at an all-time high. The number of overweight children between ages 6 and 17 has doubled in the past 20 years.
In the study on TV habits -- published in the Jan. 8 issue of the journal Pediatrics -- researchers looked at the eating habits of 91 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who watched television during two or more meals each day and compared them with those of kids who either never watched TV while eating or who watched it during just one meal per day.
The diets of the TV-watchers were significantly worse, the researchers found -- but why?
"Those who have the television set on during meals may see more advertising for snack foods," guesses lead study author Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, an associate professor at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston. "Or, if the television is on during meals, the meals become a secondary activity, not a primary one, so the focus is off the foods that children consume."
This makes sense to women's health expert Donnica Moore, MD, mother of a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. "Look at what we eat in front of the television as grown-ups," she says.
Moore says she does allow her kids to watch television while they eat breakfast, but is very careful about what she serves them.
That said, "there are times when it is entirely appropriate for children to decompress in front of the television -- such as after a long day at school or when it is raining out," she says. "That's when I make something called a 'pupu platter' -- a large serving plate with a different sections of healthy foods such as sliced-up carrots, cherry tomatoes, grapes, cut-up apples, and other easy finger foods which are a pleasure to eat in front of the television."