NEW YORK – Parents who want their preschoolers to eat their vegetables may need to take a hard look at their own eating habits, new research suggests.
In a study of 120 young children who were allowed to "buy" food from a play grocery store, researchers found that even 2-year-olds tended to mirror their parents' usual food choices.
Children who stocked up on sweets, sugary drinks and salty snacks generally had parents whose typical grocery list featured such items. Similarly, children with the healthiest shopping habits seemed to be following their parents' lead as well.
The findings, reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, suggest that even very young children do not indiscriminately reach for candy when given the chance. Instead, they seem to already be forming food preferences — potentially lasting ones — based on their parents' shopping carts.
"The data suggest that children begin to assimilate and mimic their parents' food choices at a very young age, even before they are able to fully appreciate the implications of these choices," write the researchers, led by Dr. Lisa A. Sutherland of Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
That, the researchers say, means that the grocery store can be like a classroom, where parents teach their children that foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains take priority over snacks and desserts.
For the study, Sutherland's team had 120 children aged 2 to 6 years old each take a turn in a play grocery store. The children were told they could buy anything they wanted out of 133 items: "healthier" foods included fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, bread and milk; "less healthy" items included desserts, candy, potato chips, soda and sugary cereals.
Parents completed questionnaires on how often they bought specific foods and beverages. All said they brought their children with them on grocery store trips.
Most of the children, the researchers found, bought some sugary, salty treats; on average, their carts were filled with equal parts healthy and unhealthy items.
However, 35 children bought significantly more healthy fare than junk food. In general, the study found, the health-consciousness of a child's shopping cart mirrored that of her parents' grocery list.
"Nutrition interventions for children most often begin with school-aged children," Sutherland and her colleagues write. "This study suggests that preschool children are already forming food preferences and are attentive to food choices made by their parents."
Giving preschoolers a taste for healthy foods, the researchers add, could ultimately make it easier for them to keep up a lifetime of smart eating.