Under the influence: What kids eat and why

Starting in the womb, a mother’s influence on her child’s nutrition is irrefutable. Researchers are discovering just how much sway she has, along with other influencers in a child’s world.

Maternal personality. Mothers with many negative thoughts and feelings are more likely to give their children unhealthy food, according to a 2009 study published in Maternal and Child Nutrition. The mothers who were emotionally unstable, anxious, angry, sad, had poor self-confidence or a negative view of the world, were far more likely to give their children sweet and fatty foods. Yet there was no link between maternal personality and the amount of fruit and vegetables a child receives. The researchers suspect the moms may be trying to compensate for their negative emotions.

Parenting styles. Parents with extreme parenting styles usually fail to serve as good dietary role models for their children, according to Oklahoma State University research. Parents who are strict in general also tend to have an authoritarian approach to their children’s eating, such as banning certain foods or using pressure to get them to eat fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, permissive parents who let their children eat whatever they wanted tended to be permissive in their parenting styles as well. Parents who fell somewhere between permissive and authoritarian were those who set limits on their kids’ diets and enforced them through more positive approaches, such as leading by example, to get their kids to eat well. This authoritative approach is the best way to influence a child’s diet.

Nagging. Mothers who pressure their children to clean their plates may help produce a fussy eater, while tight control of what they eat could make children prone to overeating, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. But parents’ mealtime strategies don’t necessarily cause their children to overeat or become picky eaters. The researchers admit the parents’ urges may be in response to eating habits their children already have.

Mothers and friends. When a young child’s mother is present, he tends to eat more nourishing foods than when he’s with his friends. In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, boys and girls ages 5 to 7 ate fewer calories from unhealthy snacks and desserts when their mothers were with them, compared to when their friends were alongside them.

Grandma. Grandmothers can greatly influence the nutrition environment of their preschool-aged grandchildren. In a Maryland study, grandmothers shaped their grandchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption by purchasing and providing food for their daughters and grandchildren. However, grandmothers also reported consuming less than the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables, which suggests they might have a negative effect on how much produce their grandchildren eat.

Buying healthy foods, or not. While parents prefer nutritious foods for the entire family, their preference for healthy foods is about 50 percent weaker when they’re selecting products for the kids, rather than for themselves. The likely explanation is that parents give in at the grocery store — or before they even get there — compromising their preferences based on what they believe their children will accept, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior.

Tip: While you provide the food your child eats, he decides what to eat and how much. Try to strike a balance between strictness and being overly relaxed.

Christine M. Palumbo, RD is an award-winning dietitian and mother of three from Naperville, IL. She wishes she’d had this knowledge when her children were preschoolers. Follow her on Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition.

Beef, wild rice and mushroom bake

Total recipe time: 1 to 1 and 1/4 hours. Makes four servings


1 pound ground beef (90 percent to 95 percent lean)

8 ounces assorted fresh wild mushrooms (such as cremini, shiitake and oyster) or button mushrooms, sliced

1 package (5.6 to 6.6 ounces) wild rice mix with seasonings

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, not packed in oil


1/2 cup shredded Italian blend cheese

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add ground beef and mushrooms; cook 8 to 10 minutes, breaking into 3/4-inch crumbles and stirring occasionally. Remove drippings. Stir in rice, contents of seasoning packet and tomatoes. Spoon beef mixture into 2-quart baking dish. Stir in water amount indicated in rice package directions, plus 1/2 cup additional water. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake in 375°F oven 45 to 50 minutes or until water is absorbed. Uncover; sprinkle with cheese. Continue baking, uncovered, 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.

NUTRITION INFORMATION: (per serving) 380 calories; 11 g fat; 86 mg cholesterol; 822 mg sodium; 36 g carbohydrate; 2.1 g fiber; 35 g protein; 8.1 mg niacin; 0.4 mg vitamin B6; 2.3 mcg vitamin B12; 4.9 mg iron; 26.7 mcg selenium; 6.4 mg zinc. This recipe is an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, selenium and zinc.

Cook’s tip: Cooking times are for fresh or thoroughly thawed ground beef. Ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F. Color is not a reliable indicator.

Recipe courtesy of the
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.