What methods work and what do not when parents seek to teach their offspring how to eat healthy have been revealed by a Norwegian nutritionist.
Obesity among children has long been a rising problem in large parts of the world. Parents play a crucial role in shaping good childhood eating habits, according to new research from the University of Stavanger.
Providing youngsters with fruit and vegetables, involving them in buying and cooking healthy food, and encouraging them to eat it are key elements for creating healthy eating habits, this study finds.
But nutritionist Elisabeth Lind Melbye at the University of Stavanger, who did the work, thinks that stern rules on eating habits of children can actually make them less healthy.
She looked at what works - and does not work - when parents seek to teach their offspring how to eat healthy.
Some 800 Norwegian children aged 10-12 and their parents took part in this study, which also tested a broader measurement tool than has been used in earlier work on the issue.
Moreover, Melbye focused on relatively older children compared with previous research in the USA and France, which looked at youngsters aged from two to eight.
Her study tackles some of the myths about good strategies for encouraging healthy eating by children, and she sums up the recipe for establishing a good diet as follows.
"The most important thing parents can do is to have healthy food on hand for their child, who should be allowed to help itself to this whenever it wants."
Melbye also maintains that the value of the physical act of preparing food in the home has long been undervalued.
Similarly, parents must ensure that unhealthy food is not available except at parties. In with the fruit bowl, out with the sweet packet, she emphasises.
"In addition to exposing children to healthy food, they ought also to participate in its preparation and in planning meals. Let them cut up vegetables and help in the kitchen."
"And take them with you to the shops. If they're old enough, you can also discuss healthy eating with them and explain why it's good for the body".
Inculcating a good relationship with food from an early age is an important lesson Melbye wants to convey. But parents must not be too strict.
While earlier international studies have devoted most attention to parental control of child eating, she has also looked at the way youngsters make their own choices.
"If parents are unreasonably strict and restrictive over diet, their offspring might develop a yearning for unhealthy food. They then eat less of the healthy options."
"That's the paradox - forbidden fruit is tempting. So even when parents encourage a good diet, the child itself must also feel that it has both the opportunity and desire to eat properly".
"As a result, the goal should be to create a sound home environment, where a healthy and varied diet and good experiences with food are the main ingredients," Melbye added.