Our dietary habits as young children have an especially strong influence over how we eat for the rest of our lives, demonstrating the importance of promoting good nutrition early on. Yet the past year has shone a spotlight on the challenges of raising children while balancing many other priorities. Understanding the decisions made by parents and caregivers—and the hurdles they face while trying to provide food for their children—provides valuable information for improving the dietary habits of children nationwide.
A new survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), “Knowledge, Understanding and Behaviors When Feeding Young Children,” examines how parents and caregivers consider current diet recommendations for kids ages 2 to 10, how they interpret and implement nutrition advice, and what information sources adults rely on when making food and dietary choices for children.
While parents and caregivers report having good access to nutrition information and overall feel confident that they’re meeting their child’s nutritional needs, many cite obstacles, such as how to introduce variety into kids’ diets and how to translate aspirations into positive behaviors.
As a parent myself, the contrast between knowing what a healthful diet looks like and actually getting a child to eat nutritiously is extremely relatable. We all want to provide the best we can for our kids, and this research highlights that when it comes to nutrition, the decisions parents and caregivers make around their children’s diets aren’t always straightforward – everything from taste, price and nutrition to personal and cultural preferences need to be considered.
When asked about the consumption of different types of foods, two in three respondents (69%) said their children eat dairy products two or more times a day, while 74% and 63% said their kids eat protein and fruit two or more times per day, respectively. Just one in five (19%) said their child eats grains at least three times a day. While 91% said that their children eat vegetables at least once per day, only one in five (19%) said they eat them 3 or more times daily.
Indeed, vegetables emerged as the food that parents and caregivers have the most difficulty in getting their child to eat, with 41% stating that dark green vegetables are a challenge and red and orange vegetables posing difficulties for 28%; acceptance of beans, peas and other legumes (39%) and seafood (35%) are also common hurdles. Children seem to be the least resistant to consuming dairy, fruit and whole grains.
In alignment with these challenges, broadening kids’ palates is a big priority for parents and caregivers: two out of five (42%) said they wish they could improve their child’s willingness to try new foods and 37% want to increase both the variety of foods and the amount of vegetables children consume. However, they cite major obstacles, including the pickiness of their child (39%), the cost of healthy foods (30%) and the taste of healthy foods (23%).
Like many other recent IFIC reports, the survey looked at some of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—which, according to respondents, are fairly modest when it comes to children’s diets.
More than half (57%) of parents and caregivers say their children’s nutrition has not changed during the pandemic, while 31% say it improved at least somewhat. Of those with kids whose nutrition improved, 16% credited healthier foods, 15% pointed to homemade meals, and 15% cited better monitoring of food intake and options.
However, the pandemic’s negative impacts on nutrition were noted for over one in 10 children (11%) whose nutrition has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic. Of this subset, 23% of parents and caregivers blamed changes to snacking habits, 22% said it was due to a limited variety of food or access to fresh food and 21% blamed food choices that were unhealthy or convenient.
The International Food Information Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes science-based information on nutrition, food safety and agriculture. Visit http://www.ific.org.