Dads should take more active role in families’ healthy eating
Because summer is barbecue season, it’s the time of year when children are most likely to eat a meal cooked by their father. Where are fathers the rest of the year? I’ve spent three years studying this question, speaking with more than 100 mothers, fathers and teenagers in the Bay Area. I found that dads not only do less meal-preparation work; they also put moms in a nutritional and emotional bind. Feeding a family is hard work. For one, it takes time. Grocery shopping, planning and cooking meals, packing snacks — these tasks consume hours each week.
But time is just one part of the story.
In the families I met, moms and dads often thought differently about feeding kids. Both parents wanted their children to eat healthy. But moms were more likely to see themselves as the parent responsible for achieving that goal. Feeding a family is psychologically and emotionally draining. Day after day, someone has to plan what everyone will eat, coordinate schedules and mealtimes, navigate allergies and taste buds. In the United States, that someone is almost always mom. Even in families where both parents work full time, mothers still spend significantly more time than fathers doing food-related work.
When it came to modeling good eating habits, dad was the “fun” parent. Dad didn’t force Brussels sprouts down anyone’s throat, and children could always count on dad for junk food. As one teenager told me, “If I want some chips or cookies, I’ll ask my dad to get them for me. Then, my mom usually finds out and gets mad.” Dads’ willingness to give kids unhealthy foods frustrated the moms I met. It also put moms in a tight spot. Many moms wished they could give dads more food responsibilities. But moms feared that the more that children dined with dad, the more french fries they would eat and the fewer greens they would get. Rather than offering relief, the idea of fathers being in charge only made moms more anxious. It’s not that dads were deliberately trying to make moms’ lives harder or compromise their children’s diets. The fathers I spoke with were loving, committed caregivers who wanted the best for their children.