Your Child's Nutrition: The Power of Parents

You have more influence on what your kids eat than you think. Here's how to make the most of it.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
6 min read

Mom has plenty on her plate these days, including the high-ranking job as senior manager of her children's nutrition.

In most families, "mom buys the food that's in the house. Mom puts food on the table. Mom has the pivotal role in what the kids eat," says Marilyn Tanner-Blasier, RD, LD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Dads influence their child's nutrition, too, and it's not just what's cooking in the kitchen. Both parents set the pattern for the family's lifestyle. If mom and dad are oatmeal-and-biking types, their kids likely are, too. If parents are more the chips-and-TV type, that's where you'll find the kids.

In one large survey of kids under age 12, mom and dad ranked highest as their children's nutrition role models -- the persons the kids most wanted to be like, reports Tanner-Blasier. Nearly 70% of children reported they were likely to talk with mom or dad about nutrition and their body size.

That survey -- conducted by the American Dietetic Association Foundation -- also picked up on the families' activity levels. Kids were more likely to eat a meal or watch TV with a parent, rather than playing outside.

"If mom and dad spent most of their time sitting around watching TV, leading an inactive lifestyle, kids did the same," says Tanner-Blasier, who is also a pediatric dietitian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Trouble is, "many parents don't really think of themselves as role models," says Ron Kleinman, MD, associate chief of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"Parents expect their kids to do things, like exercise, that they themselves don't do," he tells WebMD. "You can't lie on the couch watching TV, snacking on potato chips -- yet tell your child to go outside and get some exercise. It just doesn't work that way."

Any parent can be a good role model for children's nutrition. "Even if you're overweight and having trouble losing it, it's still possible to role model a healthy lifestyle for your child," Kleinman tells WebMD. Try these tips at home:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables rather than snacks. "Studies show that if parents emphasize how important these are in the diet, children will eat them more often -- compared to parents who are more about relaxed it," says Kleinman. "You don't want to be rigid about it, but you must insist."
  • Pass along the basics of portion control. Kids also must learn to stop eating -- what nutritionists call portion control. "In our culture, we tend to lose sight of the feeling of fullness," Kleinman explains. "The 'clean your plate' club overrides the natural cues a child has to stop eating when they are full. It prompts them to eat when there is no reason to eat."

That's how the habit of "constant grazing" is born, says Kleinman. "That's why you see kids sipping a soda while they're walking down the street. They just don't think about stopping."

  • Value family mealtimes. Family mealtimes -- without the TV -- help teach children valuable lessons, says Kleinman. "Families who eat together tend to eat healthier. They learn portion control, since there's only so much food put out for everybody. It also reinforces time limits on eating."
  • Track TV time. Difficult as it may be, limiting TV time is absolutely a must, Kleinman says. "You should be outside with your kids, walking or running, modeling what a healthy lifestyle is all about -- or your kids will not take it seriously."

Studies show that when parents make the effort be model good nutrition for their children, it really does work. One study focused on 114 overweight families, with kids aged 6-12 years old. Like their parents, the kids were overweight. As parents took measures to get into shape, so did their overweight kids. In fact, both parents and kids had similar positive results in weight loss over the five-year study period.

What were parents doing right? They were keeping close track of foods they ate, limiting high-calorie foods, following a food reference guide, having nightly family meetings, and praising each other -- generally being healthy role models for their kids.

To turn things around at your house and give your child's nutrition a healthy boost, we've got these tips:

Try one or two new healthy foods or recipes every week. Some will catch on, others won't. You might need to expose your kids to certain foods as many as 10 or 15 times before they develop a taste for them. Serve new fruits and veggies in bite-sized pieces, so they're easier to eat -- with dipping sauces to make them yummier.

Let young children serve themselves. One study showed that when food was served family-style -- passing bowls around the table -- children took the right amount of food for their ages. Three-year-olds took about a 1/2 cup portion of mac 'n' cheese; 4- and 5-year-olds took 3/4 cup. However, when researchers put a double-sized portion on the children's plates, the kids took bigger bites -- and ate more.

Don't let kids eat in front of TV.Preschoolers who watch two or more hours of TV daily are nearly three times more likely to be overweight than children who watch less, research shows. Why? Kids who eat while watching TV often eat more, possibly because they are distracted from the normal feeling of fullness.

Make breakfast a priority. Eating breakfast fuels body and brain and is a big part of good nutrition for children. Kids who eat breakfast daily get more nutrients overall. They are also less likely to be overweight, and fare better at school. If growing kids don't get that first meal of the day, they miss out on protein, calcium, fiber, a little fat to help them feel full, plus important vitamins. Try:

  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals, like Cheerios and Wheat Chex
  • Oatmeal with applesauce, berries, and chopped nuts
  • Whole-grain toast topped with melted reduced-fat cheese
  • Fruit-and-yogurt parfait: Layer low-fat yogurt with fruit, nuts, whole-wheat cereal
  • Whole-grain frozen waffles topped with sliced strawberries and low-fat yogurt
  • Scrambled eggs or omelet with veggies
  • Leftover cheese-and-veggie pizza

Pack healthy lunches. With a lunch from home you can enhance your child's nutrition, making sure they get the protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and calcium they need. Try:

  • Chopped broccoli, baby carrots, apple slices with fat-free dip
  • Quesadilla wedges with cheese, chicken, or veggies
  • Wraps: whole-wheat tortillas, lean meats, veggie slices
  • Whole-wheat bread, peanut butter, banana, chopped dates

Prepare for snack attacks. After-school snacks can be nutritious, too. Stock the kitchen for healthy snack fixings that kids will eat. A bowl of fresh fruit sitting on the counter is a good start. And try these other ideas:

  • Make a trail mix of low-sugar cereal, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit, and mini chocolate chips
  • Have chopped veggies and dip sitting on the top shelf of the fridge
  • Offer low-fat cheese sticks
  • Buy single-serving cups of low-fat yogurt or low-fat milk (flavored or plain)
  • Stock low-fat microwave popcorn
  • Offer Middle-eastern hummus or peanut butter with whole-grain crackers

Make dinner quick and easy. Family dinners don't have to be fancy to boost your child's nutrition. Just make sure you keep a few key ingredients in the pantry and fridge. Pre-washed mixed greens make salads an easy addition to every meal. And try these ideas:

  • Store-bought roasted chicken, fresh or frozen veggies, quick-cooking brown rice
  • Cheese and veggie omelets or scrambled eggs, fruit or veggies, whole-grain toast or rolls, milk
  • Whole-wheat blend pasta with prepared marinara sauce; stir in shredded carrots and garbanzo beans
  • 100% ground turkey breast burgers or frozen veggie burgers on whole-wheat buns
  • Take-out or frozen thin-crust cheese pizza topped with veggies