How my eating habits are making my toddler fat

Don’t think your toddler is watching what you eat? Think again. Recent Aussie research found that a dad’s diet can impact their kid’s health.

dad and kids eating

I really hope I haven’t set my daughter up to be a Cola addict for life, but I can see that it’s possible, and that I may have made some errors.

I try to tell myself that it’s only Diet Coke, so it’s not so bad, but she’s only six, so it’s still terrible.

I’ve always assumed my DC addiction just made me more like sexy nerd Elon Musk, who famously existed on eight cans of the stuff a day, plus a few large (as in American-size) coffees a day, to get him through his 100-hour working weeks.

That always made me feel better about my one-can-a-day habit, and I decided not to think about the fact that he quit because, as he put it, he started to lose his peripheral vision.

But drinking the stuff every day, in front of an impressionable young child who worships me like some kind of gormless, grizzled God may not have been a good idea. Nor is the fact that I occasionally let her have a sip, because now she seems to love the stuff (just for the taste of it).

Diet Coke is, of course, just the tip of the steaming, oleaginous and high-calorie iceberg of bad eating habits that I’m inflicting on my poor, innocent children.

And, I must admit, as someone who was a tubby little dough ball of a child myself, I do constantly check to make sure that they’re still following in their annoying mother’s footsteps by having super-efficient metabolisms that allow them to stay skinny no matter what (so far).

The problem is not just that I know I have bad habits, chief among which is that I despise waste, and have thus appointed myself the house’s gluttonous garbage disposal unit, abusing my offspring about the fact that “you can’t leave all that food on your plate, children are starving in Syria” in between shovelling their leftovers into my jawing maw. It’s that I’ve recently discovered just what a bad influence that makes me.

They pick it up young

Research from Melbourne’s Deakin University has found that children as young as 20 months old already share dietary associations with their fathers, and that means desiring things like unhealthy snacks, takeaway foods and sugary soft drinks (or even artificially sweetened ones, no doubt) based on their dad’s intake.

The enlightening yet frightening research was conducted by Adam Walsh, a lecturer in nutrition and diet, and a dad himself.

He said many fathers have little understanding of the ways in which their eating behaviours are going to impact their children’s dietary choices in their incredibly important, formative years.

“As a father of two young children and a dietitian by trade, my profession gave me thoughts and ideas about what is appropriate for a healthy diet and activity, but most people I’d talk to about these issues were mums,” Walsh explained. “Dads just didn’t have a part in these discussions.”

Previous research had suggested the influence of significant figures in a child’s life on their diet started much older than 20 months, so his findings were something of a shock, although he also found that those influences become even more pronounced as kids get older.

Subsequent research showed a child’s diet at 20 months was predictive of dietary intake at three-and-a-half and five years.

“Even dads who don’t cook or prepare meals have an indirect influence on their child’s dietary behaviours through their own individual food likes and dislikes, and role modelling,” explained Walsh.

“This is things like ‘what’s Dad doing? Is he sitting with us? Is he eating the same thing that’s on my plate?”’

So, seriously, am I the only dad out there who tells his kids they don’t have to eat their evil Brussels sprouts, because I hate them, so why can’t they? And does that make be a bad parent? Oh dear.

Look who’s cooking

The line about how even dads who don’t prepare meals have a major impact on their children’s diets sticks me personally even more.

As the work-from-home parent, I actually do most of the cooking, and I know in the cold hard light of the mirror/computer screen that I should do better.

It’s not that I’m a terrible cook, but I know I’m a lazy one. And a deep aversion that I have to vegetables of nearly all kinds influences what I put on the table.

Like most people, I have a rolling rota of two or three things I feel I can pretty much cook with my eyes closed during the post-school Witching Hour, and in summer I’m happy to barbecue six nights a week.

And I know it’s quite possible that my choices of food are not as good as they could be, but I have been learning recently how to hide veggies in food (from myself as much as them, absurdly) by grating zucchini and carrot very finely into the meat sauce for spaghetti bolognese, for example.

So I’m trying, but it’s the eating behaviours I show them that are possibly more of a problem.

I grew up in a fairly low-income environment where we were chided and derided for even thinking about wasting food.

We were fed constant horror stories about how our grandparents had survived on bread and “dripping” (has any foodstuff not made from frogs or snails ever sounded less appealing?) and how we should thus be thankful.

To this day, if there’s food left on the plates it takes a huge physical effort for me to actually bin the stuff.

I feel like it’s a small but significant crime, even without witnesses, or actual laws against the practice.

But it does feel wrong, and somehow it feels slightly more right — as illogical as I know it is — to eat the bloody leftovers myself.

I’ve got habits

Shovelling the leftovers is just one of the Top Five Reasons That Aren’t Beer that I’m constantly wrestling a Dad Bod into submission.

There’s the chocolate habit, which I do my best to hide, except at Easter, where I become a kind of cocoa addict, and let it all hang out.

And the fast-food thing. To this day, my wife won’t forgive me for urging the kids to try McDonald’s, and insisting that they like it.

Again, to my self-justifying mind at least, this is all because I was only allowed to eat the torpid, plasticised stuff myself once a year, tops, and I swore my kids would have a life of unfettered access and McDonald’s birthday parties (not one so far, curse it).

Plus there are the second helpings, the sweet tooth, the list goes on. And at some level I guess I knew it all along. I just didn’t want to acknowledge I was setting a bad example.

Realistically, I know I spend a lot of meals with my kids, I feed them, and I eat in front of them. Of course, I try to show them that exercise is important as well, and at least some of the time I exercise self restraint (mainly when chocolate mousse reminds me of effluent).

But it has made me think that I could, and should, do better with my eating habits, and that it’s not only the kids who would benefit. A bit less human garbage action might be quite good for me, too.