EDMONTON, Alberta — Left to their own devices, most children would be more than content sustaining themselves on a diet of chips, candy, and sugary drinks. Thankfully that’s where mom and dad come in and make sure their children eat a few vegetables every once in a while. Surprisingly, a new study conducted at the University of Alberta suggests parents let their youngsters choose their own snacks some of the time. This approach will actually lead to more healthy eating choices among parents and other caregivers, the researchers say.
The study’s authors were quite surprised by their conclusions, even calling it a “striking finding.” Over the course of the research, both parents and other caregivers, such as babysitters, tended to make healthier eating choices after satiating a child’s request for a particular snack, whether it be healthy or fattening.
In summation, these results show the psychological repercussions one decision can have on subsequent choices, even when we are completely unaware of such an influence.
The overall study consisted of a series of experiments intended to analyze how “powerful” caregivers felt, and what foods they ate, after making various decisions for their children. One of those decisions was whether or not to pack a snack in the child’s lunch that had been requested.
Caregivers who indeed packed their child’s desired treat made healthier eating choices for themselves afterwards. In one scenario, caregivers that gave their child the snack they desired ate an average of 2.7 fewer unhealthy snacks and 1.9 more healthy snacks than caregivers who ignored their child’s snack request.
According to lead researcher Utku Akkoc, a lecturer in the Alberta School of Business and a consumer behavior expert, the underlying reason behind this observation is likely associated with how the adults ultimately felt about their decision regarding the child’s snack.
“Our theory is that moms who accommodate the child’s preferences against their better judgment would end up feeling less powerful, compared to moms who successfully impose their own food choices on their children,” he says in a release. “This happens because accommodation involves a passive and less stressful willingness to yield to the child. When people feel less powerful, they make more inhibited, healthier choices like a dieter would.”
On the other hand, adults who mandated their child’s snack invoked “an active exercise of persuasion in trying to get the child to eat that healthy fruit salad, not a piece of chocolate cake. You feel powerful after that, because you succeeded, and you feel licensed to reward yourself with treats,” Akkoc explains.
It’s worth mentioning that caregivers still made unhealthier eating choices for themselves if they ignored their child’s request for a certain snack, but gave the child another unhealthy food option.
Additionally, adult participants in the study seemed to be swayed in their dietary choices if they were eating with their children.
“We believe it’s because people would feel hypocritical if they ate cake in front of a child that’s made to eat fruit,” Akkoc notes.
“It shows some ways parents and other adults can increase their own healthy eating by dining together with their children after making healthy choices for them,” he concludes.
The study is published in Appetite.