It is well understood that WHAT we eat can impact our health. However, WHO we eat with can also have a significant influence on our choices. In children as young as age 2, peer influence can play a role in food choices and preferences. Understanding how theses influences affect meal selections, and then providing positive opportunities and examples of healthy eating, can help a child make healthier food choices.
A study published in Child Development showed that preschool-aged children model their eating behaviors on the behaviors of their peers. When a preschooler with a strong dislike for a vegetable was seated with peers who had a strong preference for the same vegetable, the preschooler was significantly likely to alter food preferences over time and eventually select the initially disliked vegetable.
The same is true for adolescents. During adolescence when peer acceptance becomes of critical importance to teens, social pressures can play a major role on eating behaviors. While results from research studies have been inconsistent, several models have been proposed to explain the role of peer influence on adolescent eating behavior. Through social reinforcement, for instance, peers may indirectly bolster the idea of the “ideal” thin body shape, thereby pressuring teens to skip meals or diet. Adolescents may also imitate the behaviors of their peers who practice unhealthy eating behaviors.
Just as peer influences can alter youth behavior, so can parental and familial influences. The environment in which a child grows up is strongly influenced by the family. Consequently, food habits and preferences of children are often mediated by parents. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that parental influence had a significant impact of the food selection of young children. In particular the study found that not only parental monitoring but even the threat of parental monitoring resulted in young children choosing less non-healthful foods, and selecting foods with a lower total caloric content.
Parents and other family members can enforce health eating behaviors both at home and school. Here are some ideas to help shape your child’s healthy eating habits:
Bertilia Trieu and Tisa Hill, Cornell University
Birch, Leann Lipps. (1980). Effects of Peer Models' Food Choices and Eating Behaviors on Preschoolers' Food Preferences. Society for Research in Child Development. 51:2, 489-496.
Story, Mary, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Simone French. (2002). Individual and Environmental Influences on Adolescent Eating Behaviors. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 102:3, S40-S51.