When daddy cooks

Like many contemporary fathers, Kirk Christensen not only brings home the figurative bacon, but cooks it, too. The suburban Chicago father of two enjoys cooking whenever he can, although it’s often limited to grilling outside on the weekends.

Much has been written about mothers’ influence on their children’s eating styles, but what about the dads? Studies suggest that fathers have a major influence on their children’s eating habits and nutritional status.

While mothers traditionally had the primary responsibility for shopping and cooking, fathers are increasingly pulling their own weight. In a 2008 study published by the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 65 percent of dads said meal preparation and shopping was done by mothers or shared equally between the mothers and fathers. Twenty four percent of the dads reported that the meal preparations were their primary responsibility and 14 percent share the chore equally with their wives.

In the same study, 24 percent of dads had the primary grocery shopping responsibilities for their families.

Parenting style can also impact nutrition status. In a 2006 study in Obesity, fathers influenced their daughters’ weight. Those with highly controlling fathers had a higher percentage of body fat.

Dads as role models

Chicago area dietitian David Grotto, president of Nutrition Housecall, LLC, says dads play a special role in their children’s eating habit formation.

Dads may not always be cooking up a storm or take main responsibility for the grocery shopping, but they can serve as a positive role model for their children when it comes to eating right. Yet, according to the USDA, the majority of fathers fall short in their fruit and vegetable eating. Why? It’s not the cost, but because they don’t care for them.

Grotto, who has three tween daughters, suggests fathers praise mom’s cooking and eat it with a smile. He notes, “If dad won’t eat it, the kids might not either.” Grotto points to ways dads can model enjoying meals in just the right amounts. “Slow and steady wins the race. Assuring kids that there is plenty of food to go around and they won’t ‘starve to death’ when eating slowly, is a great life-long lesson.” He adds that fathers can also send a strong message about eating until you are just about full – but not uncomfortable.

In some households, Mom stresses the nutrition and Dad reluctantly goes along with it. This is somewhat true in the Christensen household. Kirk relates that, at times, his wife sneaks healthy veggies, such as zucchini, into sauces. “I’ll give her the eye as if to ask, ‘This is a squash sauce, isn’t it?’”

When dad’s in charge

If dads don’t cook and they are “home alone” charged with feeding the brood, they often turn to less than stellar options. Grotto suggests these tips for cooking-challenged fathers:

Bust out some tortillas, pasta sauce and cheese to make quick and simple pizzas in the toaster oven.

Show children how to enjoy food in its simplest form. Slice up some apples and cheese, toast some hearty whole grain bread and serve with hummus or a drizzle of olive oil.

Eating behaviors and food choices established in childhood often significantly track into adulthood. We cannot underestimate the roles of fathers on their child’s current and future eating habits.

Christine M. Palumbo is a Naperville, Illinois-based dietitian and mother of three. She loves it when her husband cooks, but positively swoons when he cleans up afterward. She can be reached at (630) 369-8495 or Chris@ChristinePalumbo.com.