A study has confirmed what many mothers already feared: fathers are much more likely to feed their children unhealthy food when their mother is not around.
The research found that women are more likely to make nutritious meals for their children, while men will opt for a takeaway.
Fathers in charge
The study dealt with complete family units, where the parents were not divorced or living separately. They looked at what happens when the mother is away from the home, leaving the father to deal with the job of feeding the children.
They found that fathers were more likely to give in to children who ask for sugary food and treats. Children, in turn, are more likely to ask for these treats – figuring out early that Dad is a soft touch.
Fathers are also more likely to order a takeaway or serve a ready meal, while mothers are more likely to actual cook something that will be more nutritious.
The study took 44 families, each of which had at least one teenage son or daughter. The family members were all quizzed on eating habits and how they would eat differently when each parent was in charge of food. The use of each family member means we are not just depending on independent reporting from the adults – it is back up by their children as well.
93% said that the father’s approach to nutrition was not as firm as the mother’s. That was 41 out of the 44 families surveyed. It’s clear that there is a big difference in the approach from each gender.
Some fathers admitted that they didn’t even know what their teens were eating, with most saying that they cared less about it than their wives did. Fathers tend to worry that their children are eating enough and clearing their plates, rather than wondering if the food on their plate is the right thing for them to eat.
While not every dad has a chef job, it’s clear that more of them should be paying attention to what goes onto their children’s plates and into their stomachs.
Impact on children
The research comes while the UK is suffering a child obesity epidemic. A third of children are deemed to be overweight.
The research was carried out at Stanford University in the US, and so the findings may not be completely accurate to the average UK household. However, as we share a very similar culture, it’s likely that many correlations would be found in a similar study done in the UK.
Researcher Priya Fielding-Singh said: “Mothers are seen as committed to healthy eating, while fathers are often perceived as a barrier to it. They often turn to quick, less healthy options – such as fast food and processed meals – explicitly avoided by mothers. Teenagers are not only aware of these distinct parental approaches but exploit them. When they crave less healthy products restricted by mums, they turn to dads. In obliging these requests, dads can undermine mums’ attempts at healthy eating.”
She says that mothers essentially have extra food planning jobs on top of their normal workload – as they often take the burden of meal planning on themselves. This is true despite the modern shift towards men helping out more at home.
She added: “Fathers may be less likely to place limits on snacks. And conventional masculinity norms discourage fathers from engaging in healthy behaviours.”
Previous studies have also found that children who see their fathers eating fast food are more likely to eat it as well, and an overweight father carries a higher risk of an overweight child.