The 5 Worst Eating Habits Kids Learn From Their Parents

From getting the kids ready for school in the morning to preparing them for bed at night, a day in the life of a parent can be tough, busy, and rewarding. While parents know that they should be getting their fair share of fruits and veggies, lean protein, and whole grains, practicing good eating habits while juggling the needs of children can be quite difficult. If poor habits develop, it can have more than just an effect on the adults, as these behaviors can start to impact the kids as well. Here are five of the worst eating habits that parents may want to adjust, so their children can learn healthy habits from an early age.

1. Fast food meals while you’re on the go

taco shop

Fast food is never a good choice. | David McNew/Getty Images

Juggling your child’s multiple extracurricular activities, your own career, and duties around the house can leave little time and energy for meal planning. Live Science explains many families will look toward fast food meals as a go-to dinner a few nights a week because of its ease and convenience, and after a few months, it also falls into a routine that can be difficult to break. While many parents know that there are healthier options for a quick meal, this unhealthy habit may be harder to break as children get older if they are not shown healthier alternatives when they’re young.

Cooking well-rounded meals at home can be more difficult for single parents or for those who live on low incomes, as fast food often offers plenty of food for very little money. Practicing weekend meal planning may be the perfect opportunity to buy fruits, veggies, and lean proteins in bulk so that they can be found at a cheaper cost, and time can be spent prepping and preparing meals for the whole week with your kids. When healthful meals are already prepped and ready to go, they’re just as easy to grab as fast food.

2. Snacking on junk food between meals

Cheese and apple snack

A snack of apples and cheese is much healthier than junk food. | iStock.com/Barbara Helgason

While you may think that grabbing a handful or two of potato chips before dinner couldn’t possibly be doing that much harm, your children may be following the same practice, and thus taking in more junk food than necessary. Parents explains that children do very well with structure, and this includes creating structured eating habits. While you may be an all-day snacker, this sort of unstructured eating schedule may cause your child to not want to eat the nutritious dinner you may have prepared because they have already filled up on junk food.

Serving two or three snacks a day, one between breakfast and lunch and one between lunch and dinner, for example, is just enough to keep your child satisfied between meals, but keep the snacking consistent and on schedule. It’s important to pick snacks with plenty of protein and healthy fats (think peanut butter or yogurt) so that they’re not still hungry even after snack time. It may even help if you decide to stick to the same snack schedule to keep the consistency.

3. Using food as a reward

Unhealthy foods

A reward of junk food is not doing you or your children any favors. | Scott Barbour/Getty Images

After a long day of work or finishing up a difficult project, it may feel natural for you to go for that candy bar that’s been sitting in the pantry as a reward for a job well done. While you may know that rewarding yourself with unhealthy treats is just a once-in-awhile type of deal, you may give the wrong idea to your child if you also use food as a reward when they accomplish tasks. The University of Rochester Medical Center explains how rewarding children with food could erase all of the healthy eating habits you may have worked hard to instill in them. Typically, food rewards are in the form of sugary candies or salty junk food, and children may begin to associate these unhealthy treats with the feeling of praise and approval.

When unhealthy foods are seen as rewards, kids will naturally gravitate toward and think of them as superior foods compared to the healthy meals that they eat when there are no rewards to be given. Eliminate this practice of rewarding your child with food and choose other rewards instead — and also work to eliminate this practice within yourself. If you find that you’re reaching for junk food as a reward for yourself often, aim to repay yourself in another way, like watching a movie you love or spending time doing your favorite hobby.

4. Keeping treats completely restricted

Two people eating pie with spoons

Instead of saying no dessert, try sharing. | iStock.com

Though you may practice food restriction with your own eating habits (no second helpings, only one serving of carbs, and no dessert, for example), keeping certain foods “forbidden” and severely restricting their consumption may just make kids crave them more. Pediatric dietician/nutritionist Jill Castle explains how placing restrictions on your child’s eating can often come from a good place — perhaps you want your child to focus more on eating healthful and wholesome meals, or perhaps you don’t want them to get into the habit of snacking before bed. While monitoring what your child eats is a practice that many parents should exhibit in order to teach positive habits, complete restriction of how much a child should be eating, or a complete restriction of a specific food or food group, may lead to future issues.

This complete restriction is likely to leave your child emotionally conflicted — they may feel as if they’ve done something wrong by eating too much, and this can lead to inner mental turmoil that can manifest over time. Or, they will seek these restricted foods elsewhere or when parents aren’t looking, leading them to eat more off-limits treats than they would normally. Instead of keeping some foods completely restricted, aim to set a good example and indulge every once in awhile with your child in these treats to show that they can be enjoyed in moderation.

5. Skipping breakfast

Father eating breakfast with his children

Make an effort to demonstrate healthy eating habits. | iStock.com

The mantra of “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is seen and repeated often, and for good reason — this morning meal is the best way to get that immediate energy boost with a kick-start to your metabolism. While it’s important for you yourself to get a healthy breakfast, it’s also important to participate in a morning meal so that you can teach this habit to your children from an early age.

The Huffington Post explains that children who eat breakfast are linked to having a higher academic performance overall and lasting energy throughout the day, and they are typically taking in more vitamins and minerals than their friends who aren’t getting the same healthful meal. Eating breakfast is also linked to children having less of a chance of developing metabolic syndrome when they get older, so getting into this habit young is likely to help them stay healthy in the future. Aim to make breakfast a necessary routine part of you and your child’s morning so you can both reap the benefits.