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Factors that Influence Children's Use of Fast Food and Full Service Restaurants
Written by June 24, 2011

Ruth Ann Carpenter, MS, RD

Lead Integrator
Health Integration, LLC

Factors that influence children’s use of fast food and full service restaurants

Almost half of our food expenditure today is on food prepared away from home.1 And we all know that food prepared away from home is far too often high in calories, unhealthy fat, and sodium. So why are we eating out so much? The top three reasons for choosing fast foods are2:

  1. Rapid service
  2. Convenient location
  3. Good-tasting food

Researchers from Texas A&M University recently investigated whether additional¬†explanations for eating away from home exist. In particular, they looked at factors like: parental work (whether one or both parents were working), family meal rituals (like who eats dinner together and whether family members believe it is important to eat together), parenting style, and mothers’ worries and concerns regarding their children’s weight3. Researchers spoke with 312 families (parents and children ages 9-11 or 13-15), asking them about the factors above¬†as well as all of the foods they ate over a two-day period.

Some interesting findings included:

  • When both parents have a standard work schedule (8-5), father has a flexible schedule or he feels that he has control at work, children use full service restaurants more.
  • Children whose mothers rank their job role as more important than their other roles, including that of a parent, reported spending more time in fast food restaurants.
  • Time spent by children traveling in the car was directly related to use of fast food restaurants and time spent in both fast food and full service restaurants.
  • Fathers who reported that the family dinner was a family ritual had children who frequented fast food restaurants less.
  • Children with authoritative mothers (parenting style that consists of caring, clear behavioral expectations and punishment by privilege withdrawal) used fast food restaurants less.
  • Children with neglectful parents (parenting style with lack of caring, lack of control, and few punishments) spent more time in fast food restaurants.

Researchers concluded that eating away from home and the healthfulness of children’s diets are linked with the manner in which parents interact with their children (parenting style), time available for family meals, and the role restaurants play in their lives. So what can we do to help parents make cooking and eating healthy family meals at home a priority? Are there tools and resources out there to help parents plan and prepare healthy meals when they don’t have a lot of time? I’ve recently returned to work full time and have found that prepping a few meals on Sunday night for the week ahead really helps. Share your strategies or tools on our Facebook page.

1Clauson, A. Leibtag, E. Food CPI and Expenditures Briefing Room. Table 12. U.S. Department of Agriculture. www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/Expenditures_tables/table 12.htm.

2Rydell, S.A. Harnack, L.J. Oakes, J.M. Why eat at fast-food restaurants: reported reasons among frequent consumers. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108:2066-2070.

3McIntosh, A., Kubena, K.S., & Tolle, G. (2011). Determinants of children’s use of and time spent in fast-food and full-service restaurants. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 43, 142-149.

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