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Fathers are more likely to feed children junk food when their mother is away

Ever worry about what your other half gives the children for dinner when your back is turned?

Your misgivings could be well-founded – if you’re a mother.

Research suggests that mums and dads are not equally concerned about ensuring their children eat healthily.

While mothers generally try to make nutritious meals, fathers are more likely to serve up a quick ready meal or takeaway when they are in charge, a survey found.

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They are also more likely to give in to their children wheedling for a chocolate bar or ice cream – and children are only too happy to exploit their fathers’ lack of commitment to a good diet.

Health campaigns focus on the importance of eating nutritious meals at home. But the sociologists behind the survey found dietary standards tend to drop when mothers are not there to enforce them.

The researchers, from Stanford University in the US, interviewed 44 families which had at least one teenage son or daughter. Each family member was quizzed on eating habits and how these changed depending on which parent was in charge.

Enjoying some Domino's Pizza

In 41 of the 44 families – 93 per cent – both children and parents said the father’s dietary standards were much lower than the mother’s. Publishing the findings in the journal Appetite, researcher Priya Fielding-Singh said: ‘Mothers are seen as committed to healthy eating, while fathers are often perceived as a barrier to it.

‘They often turn to quick, less healthy options – such as fast food and processed meals – explicitly avoided by mothers. Teenagers are not only aware of these distinct parental approaches but exploit them. When they crave less healthy products restricted by mums, they turn to dads.

‘In obliging these requests, dads can undermine mums’ attempts at healthy eating.’

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Miss Fielding-Singh said although many modern fathers play a bigger role in housework, family meal planning is still largely down to mums. And fathers tend to be more focused on getting their children to eat the right amount, rather than worrying about what they are eating.

She added: ‘Fathers may be less likely to place limits on snacks. And conventional masculinity norms discourage fathers from engaging in healthy behaviours.’

Some of the fathers interviewed admitted being unaware of what their teenage children were eating, while others admitted they cared less about it than their wives.

‘Many mothers, particularly working mothers, wish fathers would do more “foodwork”,’ she said. ‘But they also fear his greater involvement would pose a risk to the children’s’ dietary health.’

Previous studies showed children whose fathers eat fast food are more likely to eat it too, while having an overweight dad increases the risk of a child being obese.

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