THE EFFECTS OF PARENTAL INFLUENCE
ON THE EATING HABITS OF A CHILD
purpose of this study was to exam the influence on college students’
eating habits. The research objectives were to ascertain whether eating
habits were influenced by parents and whether students were still eating
in the same manner as they were raised. Participants (n=32) in
the study completed a survey and personal data sheet. Results showed
that parents of these participants did not have a direct affect on
cleaning their plate, but students currently do struggle with
overeating. They continue the practice of eating with others that was
established by family meals while growing up, and they eat the same
meals or types of food as they did as children. The paper concludes with
some recommendations for further study.
What is true of childhood traumas in relation to abuse is just as
true for cultural learning regarding food. The rest of children’s
lives will be dominated and regulated by the rules about food that they
learned as children (Brink, Ferguson, & Sharma, 1999). Specific food
habits are found to be dependent upon the subject having been fed that
way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into late
adolescence (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).
Parents supply and guide their children’s intake of food
while the child is growing. It is under these circumstances that
children are taught, by the influence of their parents, to exercise
internal or external control of eating (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).
Whether or not these eating habits, developed at an early age through
observation and practice, stay with the child through adulthood is
literature demonstrates the significant impact of early experiences with
food and the attitudes about nutrition influenced by parents, control of
the feeding environment, positive and negative behaviors, and eating
Parents shape their children’s eating environments in a variety
of ways: through the choice of an infant feeding method, by the foods
they make available and accessible, by direct modeling influences, by
the extent of media exposure in the home, and by the way they interact
with children in the eating context. Parents’ feeding practices can
exert a major influence on children’s food preferences and on
developing control of children’s food intake (Birch & O Fisher,
1998). Adolescents also perceive their parents influencing them in a
number of ways. This includes parental eating and cooking behaviors,
food purchases, rules regarding eating and meals, parental concerns
about nutrition, family meal patterns, and overall parent-child
relations (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999).
that participated in a focus group study to discover factors that
influence their food choices discussed the influence of their parents’
time availability on the type of foods they eat. They talked about their
parents being busy, mainly due to work. A seventh grade boy reported,
“I eat fast food two or three times a week because my mother and
father are busy. They don’t have time to make food, so I get fast
food” (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999, p. 6). Other
influences come through observations of family meal times. Parental
prompts to eat were positively associated with time spent eating and the
degree of overweight in children. It was found that the sequencing of
parental prompts to eat were preceded by food refusals by the child and
followed by the child eating. These findings suggest that parental
prompts to eat may act to oppose children’s own attempts to control
the amount of consumed food and promote consumption within a meal
(Birch, O Fisher, 1998). A study comparing college students’ current
eating habits to recollections of their childhood food practices
indicated that children are more likely to like a new food if they have
tasted it a number of times. Parents may reflect their concern about
children’s reluctance to eat new foods by forcing children to eat.
Approximately half of the respondents who recalled being forced to eat a
disliked food liked the food at the time of the survey and half did not
(Branen & Fletcher, 1999). The parental responsibility involved in
the eating-together approach should not be underestimated. The practices
of shopping and cooking nutritiously as well as eating together as a
family are very difficult in many households, especially when both
parents work or a single parent runs the household. However, the
structure provided by having dinner together as a family is integral to
a child’s health. It’s at the table that children, particularly
young children, learn about appropriate eating habits from parents and
older siblings (Tufts, 1993).
are good learners, and they learn best by example. Parents need to set a
good example for their children by eating a variety of foods and being
physically active. This will teach children healthy lifestyle habits
that they can follow for the rest of their lives (Health & Human
Self Control versus External
Within the feeding environment, parents and children work out the
struggle between dependence and external control (being fed) and
independence and self-control (feeding oneself). The amount and style of
control exhibited by adults has an influence on the child’s
development of self-control. In an authoritarian/demanding or adult
controlled feeding style, parents control all aspects of children’s
eating, including what, when, and how much the children eat. In the
permissive/indulgent or child-controlled feeding style, children control
the eating environment, including selection of food, timing of meals,
and amounts of food eaten. Parents using an authoritative/responsive or
cooperative feeding style share the responsibility in the feeding
relationship with their children. Parents control what is served, and
their children control the amount they eat. The cooperative style of
feeding most closely matches the current recommendations about optimal
environments for children’s development of self-control of energy
intake (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). One condition of a study conducted
on the eating behaviors of children focused on internal cues of hunger
and satiety as controls of food intake. In this condition, children
showed clear evidence of adjusting their intake in response to the
energy-density differences in the first course. In the other condition,
child-feeding practices included rewarding children for cleaning their
plates and a focus on external cues to control eating, such as the
amount of food remaining on the plate. In the latter condition, all
evidence of responsiveness to the energy content of the foods
disappeared, and rewarding them for eating significantly increased
children’s intake. These findings suggested a powerful role for
child-feeding practices in shaping how much children eat and the extent
to which children are responsive to the energy density of the diet in
controlling their food intake (Birch & O Fisher, 1998).
parents have put a decent (meaningful, healthful as well as good
tasting) meal on the table, they have completed their job and have to
let it go at that. That is, although it is up to them to decide what the
children eat and even when they eat, it is not their business to decide
how much they eat. Parents have to trust their children’s instincts,
leave them free of the emotional discomfort caused by outside
interference, and acknowledge their biological right to decide how much
they eat (Tufts, 1993).
Results of a Positive Influence
The food environment the parent provides shapes children’s
preferences and food acceptance patterns, which in turn are linked to
children’s adiposity. These affects are mediated primarily by the
patterns of preference that children have developed as a result of these
exposure patterns. The early exposure that children have to fruits and
vegetables and to foods high in energy, sugar, and fat may play an
important role in establishing a hierarchy of food preferences and
selection (Birch & O Fisher, 1998). Teaching healthy eating
practices early will help children approach eating with the right
attitude—that food should be enjoyed and is for necessary growth,
development, and for energy to keep the body running (Health & Human
Results of a Negative Influence
Nutritional intake during adolescence is important for growth,
long-term health promotions, and the development of lifelong behaviors.
Without proper nutritional intake there may be long-term health
implications. For example: being overweight as an adolescent is
associated with being overweight as an adult; fat intake during
adolescence may be associated with increased risk for coronary heart
disease; and low dietary calcium intake has been shown to lead to low
bone density in adolescents, as well as the possibility of osteoporosis
later in life (Neumark-Sztainer, Story, Perry, & Casey, 1999).
Several investigators have recently reported links among parental
adiposity, parental fat intake, and children’s adiposity and fat
intake, which suggests that familial patterns of adiposity may be
partially mediated by familial similarities in diet composition (Birch
& O Fisher, 1998). Parents who control their children’s feeding
practices can have negative and unintended effects of children’s food
preferences and the developing controls of food intake. It is likely
that such practices foster rather than prevent the development of
childhood obesity and eating problems (Birch & O Fisher, 1998).
Eating Habits Formed
As stated earlier, Brink, Ferguson, & Sharma (1999) hold that
cultural learning related to food during childhood dominates the rest of
their lives. Specific current food habits, such as eating dessert,
cleaning one’s plate, and eating regularly scheduled meals, are
dependent on the subject having been fed that way as a child, indicating
that childhood food habits persist into late adolescence. Also,
nutrition educators find that current consideration of nutrition is
dependent on parents talking about nutrition during childhood. This
confirms the belief that nutrition education during childhood can have
long-range positive impacts (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). Despite their
struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert
to preferring the same foods as their parents. Based on analysis of
adolescent food-related diaries, the conclusion was that adolescent
ideas about eating reflected values learned from family, friends,
teachers, and mass media. Older adolescents’ memories of their
childhood caregiver’s feeding styles and practices were positively
correlated with their perceptions of styles and practices they plan to
use in feeding their own children (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).
This section presents the investigative methods and procedures
for the study: purpose, data collection, sample, and statistical
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to determine whether or not college
students had a permanent influence of their parents on their eating
habits. Specific research questions were:
Are a person’s eating habits determined in childhood through
Are students at The Master’s College eating in the same manner
they were raised?
research questions provided the focus of this study, which would be
categorized as applied research because it “addresses practical
problems” (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999).
Data for this study were collected through the administration of
a survey instrument. A personal data sheet requested demographic data in
addition to the responses to the survey instrument. The survey
instrument (Appendix A) contained five questions using a five-item
Likert scale. A personal data sheet requested demographic data.
subjects for this study were randomly chosen students attending The
Master's College during the spring semester of 2000. The students
resided in Hotchkiss, Sweazy, Slight, Dixon, and Waldock dormitories.
Thirty-five copies of the survey instrument were distributed; thirty-two
were returned and thirty-two were used in this study. The data collected
from the thirty-two subjects are discussed in subsequent sections,
commencing with the reporting of the demographic findings.
The software STATPACK was employed to examine the data; the
desired scale of measurement was interval. This is a scale of
measurement in which the intervals between numbers on the scale are all
equal in size (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999). The Chi-squared
statistical test was used because the data consists of frequencies
(Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999). A .01 scale of significance was
used to test the results of the study. Data retrieved from the
demographic portion of the survey instrument were reported in
percentages and tables.
There were a total of 32 students in the study: 12 males (37.5%)
and 20 females (62.5%). Ages were distributed as follows: 2 age 18
(6.25%), 8 age 19 (25%), 10 age 20 (31.25%), 6 age 21 (18.75%), 3 age 22
(9.375%), and 1 each age 23, 24, 25 (3.125% each).
Are a person's eating habits determined in childhood through
parental influence? Questions 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the survey addressed
this research question. Table 1 shows the responses.
Responses to Eating Habits Survey
1. How often
did your parents tell you to clean your plate?
Have you ever struggled with overeating?
How often did your family have a meal together over the course of
a week while you were growing up?
How often do you now eat meals with people?
Do you find yourself eating the same meals or same types of food
you were raised with?
Chi-square (X2) in parenthesis; * = p <.01
the computed Chi-squared value (4.250) is less than the tabled
Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey question
addressing the impact of parents forcing students to clean their plate,
the conclusion may be drawn that these parents did not have a direct
affect on eating habits by telling their children to clean their plate.
This finding deviates from the research conducted by Birch & O
Fisher (1998) who found that parental prompts to eat seemed to oppose
children’s own attempts to control the amount of food consumed.
The computed Chi-squared value (21.125) is greater than the
tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level for the survey
question determining the number of students who struggle with
overeating, so the conclusion may be drawn that there are a significant
number of students at The Master's College that struggle with
overeating. This finding may or may not align with the research
conducted by Birch & O Fisher (1998) who found that “Parents who
control their child’s feeding practices can have negative and
unintended effects of children’s food preferences and the developing
controls of food intake” (p. 10). Because parents in this sample did
not verbally promote “clean your plate,” control over food intake is
For the survey question addressing the frequency of family meals
throughout childhood, the conclusion may be drawn that most students
surveyed from The Master's College ate meals with their family regularly
while growing up (X2 = 26.25; p> .01). This aligns with
the research conducted at Tufts, which found that “The structure
provided by having dinner together as a family is integral to a
child’s health. It’s at the table that children, particularly young
children, learn about appropriate eating habits from parents and older
siblings” (1993, p. 5).
the computed Chi-squared value (30.813) is greater than the tabled
Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey question
addressing the frequency of meals currently eaten with others, the
conclusion may be drawn that students stay with their eating habits
learned in childhood and currently eat with people as a result of having
frequent family meals as a child. This aligns with research conducted by
Branen & Fletcher (1999) who found that “Specific current food
habits, such as eating desert, cleaning one’s plate, and eating
regularly scheduled meals, are dependent on the subject having been fed
that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits persist into
late adolescence” (p. 6).
The computed Chi-squared value (26.438) is greater than the
tabled Chi-squared value (13.277) at the .01 level, for the survey
question addressing the frequency of meals eaten currently that are the
same as meals eaten as a child, so the conclusion may be drawn that most
students surveyed eat the same meals or types of food as they did as
children. This aligns with research conducted by Branen & Fletcher
who found that “Despite their struggle for autonomy and
experimentation, adolescents eventually revert to preferring the same
foods as their parents” (p.1).
Except for the first item and possibly the second item in the
survey it appears that the answer for this sample to the question of
whether persons’ eating habits are determined in childhood through
parental influence is “Yes.”
Are students at The
Master's College eating in the same manner they were raised? Questions
3, 4, 5 of the survey (Table 1) addressed this research question.
Because the values were significant at the .01 level, the data seem to
indicate that the answer to this question is “Yes.”
The results of the Chi-squared test suggest that (a) parents of
this sample did not directly influence their children to clean their
plate, (b) many students struggle with overeating, (c) most students eat
meals with others and may have been influenced by eating family meals
while growing up, and (d) almost half of the students eat the same meals
and same types of food as they did during childhood.
Although the sample
size is small and the Chi-squared Test is more appropriate for larger
samples, it appears that some conclusions can be made regarding the data
that were collected and analyzed in this study. The results coincide
with what most researchers have concluded. A significant number of
students were not told by their parents to clean their plate, however a
question was not asked regarding rewards for eating. No conclusions can
be made about the reason that a significant number of students reported
that they often struggled with overeating. Much of the research shows
that telling children to clean their plate causes habits of overeating (Branen
& Fletcher, 1999). Birch and O Fisher (1998) reported that child
feeding practices that include rewarding children for cleaning their
plates and focusing on external cues to control eating, such as the
amount of food remaining on the plate, affected the child’s
responsiveness to the energy content of the food and the child’s
intake was significantly increased by the rewarding. These findings
suggested a role for child-feeding practices in shaping how much
children eat and the extent to which children are responsive to the
energy density of the diet in controlling their food intake (Birch &
O Fisher, 1998). Although the student response to the survey question
did not align with multiple studies, it is possible students either have
forgotten their parent's feeding style, since it was numerous years ago,
or students have developed the habit of overeating through other
This study revealed that a significant number of students at The
Master's College often ate meals with their families while growing up.
Subsequently, they often eat meals with others, thus suggesting that
eating habits developed as a child, continue to be practiced into
adulthood. This aligned with research that indicated how specific
current food habits, such as eating dessert, cleaning one's plate and
eating regularly scheduled meals, are dependent on the subject having
been fed that way as a child, indicating that childhood food habits
persist into late adolescence (Branen & Fletcher, 1999).
Most students at The Master's College continue to eat the same
meals and same types of foods as during childhood. Once parents choose
their children's food selection, the children become accustomed to
certain types of food and certain meals. It is these foods and meals
that children typically like the most and will continue to choose even
when the parents are no longer making the food selection. Despite their
struggle for autonomy and experimentation, adolescents eventually revert
to preferring the same foods as their parents (Branen & Fletcher,
for Further Study
provides some information regarding whether or not the parents of
students at The Master’s College had a permanent influence on their
child’s eating habits. Additional questions pertaining to the effects
of parental influence on a child's eating habits warrant further
investigation; thus the following recommendations for further research
and study are offered:
Examine the validity and reliability of the survey
Replicate the study, using a different population, to determine
the effects of parental influence on a child's eating habits.
Determine the specific causes of childhood obesity.
Study the effects of internal- versus external-control feeding
light of the findings of this study, it appears that early experiences
with food and nutrition may contribute to food habits that persist
throughout adulthood. Nutrition and parenting educators may wish to
incorporate the literature review and these findings in curricula.
L., & O Fisher, J. (1998, March). Development of eating behaviors
among children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 101, 539-541.
L., & Fletcher, J. (1999, Nov/Dec). Comparison of college
students’ current eating habits and recollection of their childhood
food practices. Journal of Nutrition Education, 31, 304-310.
P., Ferguson, K., & Sharma, A. (1999, Jan-Mar). Childhood memories
about food: The successful dieters project. Journal of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 12, 17-25.
K., Cozby, P., Kee, D., & Worden, P. (1999). Research Methods in
Human Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Story, M., Perry, C., & Casey, M. (1999, Aug). Factors influencing
food choices of adolescents: Findings from focus-group discussions with
adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99,
University. (1993, Dec). Warning: Keep dieting out of reach of children.
Diet and Nutrition Letter, 1-5.
Department of Health and Human Services. (1997, Jan). Helping your
overweight child, 1-12.
survey is being conducted for a Home Economics research class to determine
whether or not parental influence has a permanent affect on the eating
habits of students here at The Master’s College. Please fill out the
survey honestly and completely and it will be a great assistance in my
research. Thank you. Return to Brianna Cooper or send to Box 1201.
Circle the one that
applies to you.
19 20 21 22
often did your parents tell you to clean your plate?
never almost never
you ever struggled with overeating?
often did your family have a meal together over the course of a
you were growing up?
never almost never
often do you now eat meals with people?
never almost never
you find yourself eating the same meals or same types of food that
you were raised with?
never almost never