Yes, Dads Give Kids Less-Healthy Food: Here's Why

mom cooking, dinner, family,
(Image credit: Jack Frog/Shutterstock)

It's a childhood memory that many people may have: When Mom isn't home for dinner, Dad takes charge … and orders pizza. Or throws some hot dogs in the microwave. Either way, it's not a choice Mom approves of.

Now, a small new study shows that dads really do make less-healthy choices when feeding the family — and this can take a toll on moms.

Study author Priya Fielding-Singh, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University in California, said she was not surprised that the fathers in the study did less housework, including both "food work" and childcare, than mothers — indeed, national data has previously shown this unequal division of labor is common. But what was surprising in the new study was that dads' lack of involvement in feeding the family can really take a toll on moms, Fielding-Singh said. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]

"Many dads are less invested in some of the healthy-eating priorities that moms really hold dear," and that can lead to more work, and more stress, for moms, Fielding-Singh told Live Science. And teens take note of these family dynamics, she added.

In the study, published online in June in the journal Appetite, Fielding-Singh interviewed 42 moms, 14 dads and 53 teens from more than 40 families in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked about family responsibilities when it came to family meals. All of the families were middle class or upper-middle class.

Fielding-Singh found that in 41 of the 44 families included in the study, the family members agreed that Dad's eating habits were less healthy than Mom's. It wasn't just that the moms considered themselves healthier than their husbands, Fielding-Singh noted: The dads agreed.

Set dynamics?

Though some of the moms in the study said they were happy to do most of the work required to feed the family, other moms said they wanted the dads to do more, such as grocery shopping and cooking, Fielding-Singh said.

But there was a catch: Moms felt that if they let dads do these tasks, the food would end up being less healthy, Fielding-Singh said. So, by letting dads more to do, moms felt like they were being worse caregivers to their children. This, in turn, made moms feel guilty — so they kept doing most of the tasks themselves, instead of delegating them to dads.

"Even though some moms were unhappy with it, few saw that there could be an alternative," Fielding-Singh said. "There was definitely a resignation" on the part of moms, she added.

Some of that resignation may stem from deeply embedded gender roles.  

"Feeding families is very central to motherhood," she said. "We hold mothers accountable for the foods that families eat." Mothers often judge themselves, and other moms, by how well they feed their families, she noted.

Dads, on the other hand, aren't usually seen as being responsible for feeding the family, Fielding-Singh said. Instead, fathers have typically been judged by how well they support their families financially and more recently, how involved they are in children's lives. But getting kids to eat healthy? That didn't factor in as an important part of being a father, she said. [History's 12 Most Doting Dads]

"It's not that the husbands were trying to be unfair to their wives" by not taking on the responsibilities of food work, she said. Dads weren't trying to hurt their kids diets or make the moms' lives harder, for example. "They simply didn't see it as their responsibility to be making sure that kids were eating healthy — they saw it as Mom's responsibility." And moms, she added, also saw it as Mom's responsibility.

But it's possible that this division of labor between husbands and wives wasn't always present in the couples' relationship. As a part of her interviews, Fielding-Singh said that she asked parents what changed about the way they approached food once they had kids. "What was striking," she said, was that "almost every mother" said things changed after she had kids, but the responses were more mixed among dads. In other words, many women seemed to become more concerned about the healthiness of food, rather than the men getting less concerned.

That means that it's possible things were more equal before kids came into the picture, Fielding-Singh said. But "because feeding is so gendered, it's almost as if this dynamic was created whereby mothers instantly cared more" once they had children.

Teens take note

The division of labor between Mom and Dad didn't just affect their own relationships; these differences in approaches to feeding the family also stood out to parents' teenage children, the study found. [10 Facts Every Parent Should Know About Their Teen's Brain]

The teens interviewed "very clearly understood and articulated that their parents had different priorities around healthy eating," Fielding-Singh said.

This divided approach is notable because kids could view their parents as a united front or solid unit, Fielding-Singh said. For example, teens might say, "my parents"care about my education — but this is not the case with food. Instead, teens might say, "my mom" cares about eating healthy, but "my dad" doesn't.

One of the reasons this matters, Fielding-Singh noted, is that teens observe their parents, and they learn how to behave, in part, from what they see their parents do. And in the study, many daughters watched their moms do the food work and the health work, and many sons watched their dads, and saw that their dads left the work to their moms, she said.

The fact that teens picked up on this "so clearly" means that "there's a real possibility that this one of the ways gender norms are transmitted," Fielding-Singh said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.