Fathers play a huge role in the choices their children make, and according to a new study, those choices include the food they eat.
Researchers analyzed the eating-out habits of more than 300 families with children ages 9 to 11 or 13 to 15. They found that how often fathers ate in fast-food and in full-service restaurants influenced how often their children ate in the same places.
"By far the biggest influence on how often children ate out was the number of times fathers did," said lead author Alex McIntosh, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Fathers' time in and use of fast-food restaurants increased a kid's likelihood of going to a fast-food restaurant."
The study found that fathers also influenced how often children ate in fast-food restaurants in other ways. Children whose fathers were more authoritarian were more likely to eat junk food. The children of fathers who believed they didn't have a lot of control at work and who also placed less value on family meal time were also more likely to eat in fast-food restaurants.
The amount of time spent in the car also influenced eating habits.
"If more time is spent riding in the car, less time might be available to the child and others in the car for other activities, including family meals at home," the authors wrote.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2008, 48 percent of the money spent on food went to pay for meals eaten away from home. In 1974, that number was 34 percent. Other studies have linked this increased spending to the rise in obesity nationwide.
"We undertook the study because people are interested in how parents affect children's eating habits and obesity, and I've always felt that there was too much attention paid to mothers, and we ought to be looking at fathers every time we look at mothers," said McIntosh.
The authors acknowedge that the findings don't necessarily apply to all families, since they only studied a few hundred families in a limited geographic area. Despite that limitation, nutrition experts not involved in the research said the study was very important. While some of the other variables, such as work schedules and parenting styles, have been studied before in relation to dietary choices, the finding that fathers have such a strong influence over what their children eat should send a message that both parents play a role in what kids eat.
"For years, we've heard that moms have the biggest impact on their kids' food choices, but with mothers becoming more involved in the workplace and fathers' roles becoming more involved in caregiving at home, it's natural that kids will start to follow their father's lead, too," said Karen Ansel, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"This study provides an opportunity to remind dads that they also impact how and what their children eat," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.
While the study doesn't address the reasons for these associations, experts believe that it has something to do with fathers' desire to spend more time with their children.
"It may be that for time-strapped dads, meals are the primary means of spending time with their kids, so they favor making it a special occasion by taking them to restaurants, even if that means these special occasions happen frequently," said Keith Ayoob, a dietitian and associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
Eating out can be a good thing if both parents make healthy choices.
"A lot of times, people are so busy that dining out actually forces people to spend time together, which can be beneficial for family time," said Keri Gans, a spokesperson for the American Dietitic Association and author of "The Small Change Diet."
If dads make healthier choices, whether at home or in restaurants, they can benefit their children as well as themselves.
"It's a 'win-win' situation," said Gans.