Mothers get the credit -- and much of the blame -- for a lot of things. But one area where they wield more power than they may imagine is helping their kids hold the line against unwanted pounds.
Just how powerful that effect can be is illustrated by a recent Pennsylvania State University study that examined the interactions between 173 mothers and their 9-year-old daughters. Researchers found that moms who ate more fruit and vegetables fostered the same habits in their daughters, who were also less likely to be picky eaters than daughters whose moms skimped on healthful produce.
The findings suggest that parents should focus less on trying to modify picky eating behavior "and more on modeling fruit and vegetable consumption for their children," Leann Birch and her co-authors reported in the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
While both parents typically influence their children's behavior, "historically, mothers have done more of the child-rearing around food," said Myles Faith, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and an investigator in an ongoing study on preventing childhood obesity. "The home environment can really shape the food preferences and eating patterns of children."
A 1998 British study of 92 mothers and their children, aged 9 to 11 years, found that fruit and vegetable consumption was shaped not just by children's taste preferences but also by their mother's nutritional knowledge, her attitudes about the health benefits of eating more produce and, again, by her own consumption of fruit and vegetables. Here are some ways you can help your children stay lean and fit:
Walk the talk. They may appear to be ignoring you, but your children watch closely and follow your example. So if you put fruit on your breakfast cereal, they will, too. If you exercise, they will, too. And if you plunk down in front of the tube every night and snack mindlessly . . . well, you get the idea.
Go ahead, give your kids some control. Start with the serving spoon. Hand it over as soon as your child can hold it, even if this makes things messy. (That's why they make splash mats.) Kids are the best judges of how much they should eat.
Easy on the portions. Adults typically dish out too much food to kids. A Penn State study found that when 5-year-olds were served a cup of macaroni and cheese for lunch, they typically ate about a third of it. But when they got two cups of macaroni and cheese, they boosted their intake to a half-cup -- nearly 40 percent more calories. "It's the parent's responsibility to make sure that the child has access to healthy food, but it's the kid's responsibility to decide how much to eat," said Penn State's Barbara Rolls, lead author of the study.
Make no foods forbidden. That only raises their desirability. So let your kids know that any food or drink is fine in small amounts. Take advantage of the single-serving portions of high-calorie fare: a single-dip ice cream cone, a small bottle of soda, a small bag of cookies, a small bag of M&M's.
Screen the food and drink you bring into the home. "Keep the less-healthy food out of the home to help limit consumption," Faith said. "If it's in the home, it will be eaten."