When Mom'S Away, Dad Gives The Kids Unhealthy Food, Study Finds
Before we go any further, it's worth noting that this study was small, and that the results can't necessarily be generalized to American families everywhere. However, if the study conclusions resonate with you, you're not alone. Many moms and dads would probably agree that if you could peek into a typical American family's kitchen when dad’s in charge of dinner because mom is at work or is away, you’d probably see foods like pizza, burgers, microwavable mac and cheese or hot dogs on the menu.
Study author Priya Fielding-Singh, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University, conducted 109 in-depth interviews (42 moms, 14 dads and 53 teens) with middle- and upper-class families in the San Francisco Bay Area. She asked family members about their eating habits and involvement in making food choices and found that in 41 of the 44 families in the study, family members — including dads — agreed that Dad’s food choices were unhealthier than Mom’s. Some of what the study found:
- Fathers do less meal-prep work (not to mention child care and housework).
- Dads are viewed as being less concerned about dietary health — both their own as well as that of their family members.
- When they’re in charge of meals, dads turn to fast, unhealthy options that moms have explicitly said no to.
- Mothers say they try to limit dads’ involvement in making and choosing food to make sure kids eat a healthy diet.
- Dads’ willingness to give kids unhealthy foods puts moms in a bind, making them the “bad guy.”
- Moms want dads to take more responsibility for feeding the family, but they are hesitant for fear that kids will be eating fries instead of veggies; in other words, the idea of putting dads in charge of mealtime didn’t take stress off their plate — it made them more anxious.
In an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Fielding-Singh writes about the effect these family dynamics are having on kids, who are watching and learning. “When it came to modeling good eating habits, dad was the ‘fun’ parent,” writes Fielding-Singh. “Dad didn’t force Brussels sprouts down anyone’s throat, and children could always count on dad for junk food. As one teenager told me, ‘If I want some chips or cookies, I’ll ask my dad to get them for me. Then, my mom usually finds out and gets mad.’”
Getting on the Same Page
Before you can make a change in food choice patterns, it’s important to understand what’s behind the dynamic itself. In her op-ed piece, Dr. Fielding-Singh notes that the dads she interviewed were good fathers who wanted the best for their kids and weren’t deliberately trying to undermine Mom’s decisions. So why does this happen? One reason is that food means different things to moms and dads, says Fielding-Singh.
Feeding and taking care of the kids was, for many generations, primarily the responsibilities of moms, and it’s moms who are constantly judged both by themselves and society by how well their kids are growing and what they’re eating. (Imagine the uproar it might cause if a mom made a habit of always giving kids junk food; the double standard that exists for fathers excuses them when they make bad food choices, but moms would hardly get the same reaction.) Dads might prioritize saving time and grab some fast food for the kids, and it’s not considered abnormal for a dad to spend less time in the kitchen cooking meals. “Dads said that moms did the cooking because their maternal instincts made them better attuned to children’s dietary needs,” writes Fielding-Singh. “As one father explained, ‘My wife is more aware of recommendations and what should be followed. I’m much more if you can keep it down and it doesn’t make you obviously ill, then it’s fine.’”
Setting a Good Example
Ultimately, that's why it's important that Mom and Dad tackle this issue together. Mom can buy all the baby carrots and broccoli she can, but if Dad’s not on board, the kids are going to chow down on junk when he’s in charge. Teach your kids that healthy food choices are something that both dads and moms should pay attention to, and that dads play just as big a role as moms in choosing and preparing nutritious foods. Just as you wouldn’t eat junk food all the time in front of the kids and expect them to choose healthy foods, it's important to pay attention to the message you’re sending about gender roles when dad doesn’t participate in healthy food choices.
Again, this is a small study, but it provides an interesting insight into something many parents and kids already know: If you want cookies and ice cream and want to skip the veggies in favor of pizza, dad might be the one to go to. But this not only hurts your family’s health, it’s bad for a family dynamic. Moving your family’s diet in a healthier direction shouldn’t just be mom’s job, and dads should remember that kids are gobbling up negative messages as well as unhealthy food when they choose that drive-through over the produce aisle.
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