Kids who eat the same food as their parents are healthier

eating in Rome
© K Martinko

It sounds like common sense, but unfortunately it's increasingly rare to find a dinner table laid with a single meal for all family members. A new study shows how the move toward 'kid food' is compromising children's health.

When I eat in a restaurant with my kids, nine times out of ten I can recite the kids’ menu before I’ve even seen it. Chicken fingers, fish sticks, mini burgers, pizza, and pasta with tomato sauce are as exciting as it gets. These choices come with a side of juice, soda, or milk, and usually an ice cream sundae for dessert. My boys love eating these novel foods that are not part of their regular diet.

While I don’t mind indulging them once in a while, the general unhealthiness of children’s menus does irk me, especially when it’s so much less healthy than the items listed on an adult’s menu in the exact same restaurant. There’s something really wrong with that. What is it about kids that makes it acceptable to fill them up with cheap, unhealthy junk? I realize the answer to that is pickiness, something that no parent wants to deal with, especially in the public sphere of a restaurant, but it really does need to be dealt with – and feeding kids a special menu is not an intelligent long-term solution.

There is a very good reason to train kids to eat non-specialized ‘kid’ food. A new study called “The Family Meal Panacea,” from the University of Edinburgh and led by Dr. Valeria Skafida, found that children who eat the same meals as their parents have healthier diets than those who eat special meals designed to cater to their kid palates. Interestingly, the prevalence of family meals shared around the table in the presence of parents was not as much of an indicator of health as was the elimination of children-centric foods and snacks.

"Eating the same food as parents is the aspect of family meals most strongly linked to better diets in children, highlighting the detrimental effect in the rise of ‘children’s food’."

Skafida studied 2,332 five-year-olds in Scotland. She conducted interviews with the children’s mothers in order to measure the children’s consumption frequency of certain food groups, what kind of ‘meal occurrence’ (i.e. snacks and full meals) was most common, what their ‘meal habits’ were (i.e. where, when, and with whom children eat), and how much children enjoy eating meals.

The results showed that, while 99 percent of kids eat at least one main meal per day, only 71 percent eat the same food as their parents. This is a matter of serious concern in Scotland, which has Europe’s highest rate of obesity; some 35 percent of Scottish children and teenage girls are overweight or obese.

This study makes a lot of sense, and I sincerely hope that it encourages more parents to realize that the ‘kid food’ culture that has taken hold in so many parts of the world – I’ve seen it firsthand in Italy, Brazil, and Canada – is entirely superfluous. Children grow up to become adults who should be able to eat the food of their native culture, which has evolved over centuries to reflect seasons, climate, accessibility to ingredients, and values, from a young age.

Unless a child has a serious allergy or medical issue, there is no reason why kids can’t learn to eat the same foods as their parents from infancy. A child who eats everything is a child with a valuable skill – one who can eat out, travel, and be healthy with ease.

Tags: Diet | Food Safety | Health | Kids

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