The family way

Photo of a family with young children having a healthy meal together. See PA Feature FAMILY Family Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FAMILY Family Column.
Photo of a family with young children having a healthy meal together. See PA Feature FAMILY Family Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FAMILY Family Column.

Despairing parents trying to persuade their fussy toddlers to eat fruit and vegetables should try to look on the bright side - their own diet and lifestyle may well be improving as a result.

Research has found that three in five UK parents (57%) have transformed their own mealtime habits for the better in order to set a good example for their toddler. And it seems that the primary motivation for more than half (53%) of the parents was the fear that their unhealthy eating habits would rub off on their child.

In addition, parenthood has prompted many mums and dads to change their lifestyle habits; 37% of parents questioned by Growing Up Milk (Growingupmilk info.com) claim to have cut down on alcohol, and nearly a fifth (23%) say they eat less junk food. Almost one in 10 have completely given up smoking and even drinking alcohol, at 11% and 9% respectively.

GP and registered nutritional therapist Dr Sarah Brewer points out that becoming a parent makes many mums and dads change their health choices.

“Having a child is great motivation when it comes to re-examining your values, priorities and lifestyle,” she says.

“From both a personal and professional perspective, I’m aware that many parents decide to either stop or cut back on potentially harmful activities.”

She says parents often become acutely aware of the effect their own unhealthy habits can have on their children’s health: smoking before, during and after pregnancy has a profound effect on child health, increasing the risk of sudden infant death, asthma and childhood cancer, she points out, while poor diet before, during and after pregnancy can have consequences for children’s long-term health.

“Nutrition within the womb can even predict future risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” explains Dr Brewer, author of Planning A Baby - A Complete Guide To Pre-Conceptual Care.

Almost one in four (24%) mums and dads have cut down on takeaways and ready meals, according to the poll of 1,000 parents of children aged one to three, while almost a third (31%) are now more likely to whip up fresh homemade meals than before having a toddler.

Similarly, almost three in 10 (28%) are now more conscious of what they eat - more than two in five (43%) eat more fruit and vegetables and 22% sit down to more salads. A quarter (26%) say they’re also more aware of the vitamin and nutrient content in food since having a child.

“Healthy habits such as regular exercise are best promoted by example, so eating fruit and vegetables, walking or cycling rather than taking the car, and respect for alcohol can be instilled at an early age,” adds Dr Brewer.

Almost four in five (79%) parents say that setting their toddler up with good nutritional habits is very important to them, and the survey found that mums spend 45 minutes a day preparing dinners for their toddlers.

Nutritionist and mum Amanda Hamilton adds: “There’s sometimes a perception that parents of toddlers subsist on constant snacking interspersed with coffee shop stops. I’m delighted that this survey reveals that there’s actually a much more positive dietary impact.

“It’s good to see that mums and dads are taking note of their child’s dietary needs, and it’s also encouraging that, as a result, their own diet is improving too.”

Along with eating habits, during the first three years, parents also turn their attention to table manners, with almost a third (32%) practising better table manners at mealtimes. Since having a toddler, almost a quarter of parents (24%) claim they’re more likely to eat their meals at the dinner table, and more than one in 10 (11%) have ditched TV dinners altogether.

Tamsin Kelly, editor of the parenting website Parentdish.co.uk, agrees it’s no surprise that parents of toddlers have a healthier lifestyle and eat at the table more often, pointing out that when you’re a parent of a toddler, you need to plan food ahead in a way that perhaps you didn’t pre-children.

“This lifestyle change is fuelled by a combination of wanting to set an example to toddlers who are sucking up information and eager to imitate their parents - eating balanced meals, enjoying fruit and veg, sitting down at the table together - and determination to be healthy and long-lived so we can enjoy our children for as long as possible.”