How Working Parents Can Keep Kids Healthy

A new study finds that childhood nutrition can suffer when parents are on the job.

October 20, 2009

Trying to balance your child's diet with your job doesn't mean that both have to suffer.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Working parents have plenty to cope with, trying to balance the demands of their jobs with the needs of their children. And it appears that those challenges can take a toll on childhood nutrition. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health finds that children of working moms spend more time watching television, munching salty chips, and swigging sugary sodas than kids of stay-at-home moms. To be clear, researchers don't see it as an issue of negligence. "A working mom does not mean a bad mom," says Michelle LaRowe, a career nanny and author of Working Mom's 411 (Regal, 2009). But it does mean that time-stressed working parents may need to try some creative ways to boost childhood nutrition.

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THE DETAILS: The study of British children included 12,576 5-year-olds with mothers who stayed at home, worked part-time, or worked full-time jobs. The moms filled out surveys with information on how many sugary drinks, sweet or salty snacks, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products their children ate each day, as well as how much exercise they got and how much time they spent playing video or computer games and watching television. Children of mothers who worked part- or full-time jobs were 10 percent more likely to eat chips and unhealthy snacks and 15 percent more likely to drink sugary beverages between meals than kids with stay-at-home moms, and they were 33 percent more likely to spend an excess of two hours in front of the TV or computer. Those results came after adjusting for socioeconomic circumstances and income.

WHAT IT MEANS: In their introduction, the authors write that 60 percent of women in both the U.S. and United Kingdom with children under 5 years old are employed, and U.S. labor statistics say that 75 percent of working women have kids under 18. The authors of the study note that their results are not intended to blame parents for raising unhealthy kids, but instead to spur policies that help make parents' lives easier, and to promote healthy eating and physical activity.

Here are ways that working parents can boost childhood nutrition and reduce sedentary activities among kids of any age:

• Limit screen time. Televisions, computers, iPods, Playstations—all these gadgets are geared towards keeping kids isolated, says LaRowe, and that keeps them sedentary and munching on unhealthy food. A study published late last year in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that cutting screen time reduces obesity and lowers a child's BMI, not through an increase in physical activity but through a decrease in caloric intake. Other studies have found that preschool children who watch more than two hours of TV per day are more likely to be overweight than children with limits on media use.

• Get them involved. How can working parents monitor a child's screen time if they aren't around? They really can't, says LaRowe, so she recommends getting kids involved in after-school sports teams, activities at the YMCA, programs at a local library, or organized play dates with family and friends. "You don't want them to be home alone," she says.

• Teach them good from bad. "When you're on a diet, you don't keep food in the house that you wouldn't want to eat," LaRowe says, and the same holds true for childhood nutrition. While you may not be able to stop them from buying junk from a corner store, you can teach kids that drinking an orange soda isn't the same as eating an orange or that french fries don't qualify as a vegetable. "Put up a drawing on the refrigerator that shows healthy snacks," she suggests. Also post a list that groups foods into "all-the-time foods," "sometime foods," and "special treat foods." These efforts can also help negate some of the unhealthy behaviors kids pick up at school.

• Demand healthy food at school.School lunches, never known as nutritional paragons, can mislead kids into thinking that french fries with pizza equals a healthy lunch. Fortunately, working parents may have some help there, as well. Yesterday, the Institute of Medicine released the findings of a report commissioned by the USDA intended to improve nutritional guidelines for school lunches. The institute recommended that schools severely reduce salt, calorie, and fat content of food and increase offerings of fresh fruit, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.

• Get them to bed. For working parents, it's tempting to keep kids up late so you can have some quality time together. But LaRowe says that's a bad trap to fall into. "Part of developing healthy behaviors means getting enough sleep," she says. "It's not in the best interest of the kids to be up to 10:00 or 11:00 at night. They should be in bed by 8 p.m. at the latest." Instead, carve out time for your kids in other ways, like by ordering groceries in 30 minutes online rather than shopping for two hours at the store.