The pandemic has been tough on families. Parents have had to juggle quarantines, online classes, and a rotating door into and out of the kitchen. Although some families have taken the opportunity to improve their children’s diets, 1 in 5 parents report that their children ate fast food more often during than before the pandemic, according to findings from the National Poll on Children’s Health from the University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital.
“The pandemic disrupted many family routines, including where and what they eat,” reported Gary L. Freed, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and co-director of the poll. “We know families’ lifestyles can impact children’s diets, and we looked to see how the pandemic may have changed their eating habits.”
The CS Mott survey was conducted in June 2021 and included a randomly selected, stratified group of adults who lived with at least 1 child aged 3 to 18 years (n=2019). The survey completion rate was 56% among parents contacted to participate. The margin of error for results was ±2 to 7 percentage points.
Parent Views on Fast Food
Parents’ views on fast food varied. Though almost all parents agreed that fast food is unhealthy, more than 84% said that it is okay in moderation. Three-quarters of parents also agree with the statement that when stressed for time, fast food is a good family option. Twenty-four percent of parents also indicated that fast food is less expensive than cooking meals at home.
Parents who said their kids are overweight were more likely to say their children have increased their fast food consumption during the pandemic compared with parents who said their kids are at a normal weight (28% vs 18%, respectively).
When eating fast food, most parents allow their children to choose what they eat (88%), and few read the nutritional information (33%). Some parents encourage their children to choose healthier options (67%) and try to limit unhealthy items like fries and milkshakes (59%).
Soft drinks and soda are among the unhealthiest choices on fast food menus and have been associated with childhood obesity. Parents of children who are overweight were more likely to report their children typically has a soft drink or soda with their fast food compared with parents of children who are not overweight (53% vs 31%).
Encouraging water or milk with their fast food, Dr. Freed said, can help kids moderate the calories and added sugar they consume.
Healthier Lifestyle During the Pandemic
The COVID pandemic disrupted many family routines, including where and what they eat. Half of parents (50%) said their family has had home-cooked meals more often since the start of the pandemic, while 20% say they have had fast food more often.
Factors that influenced the choice of healthier meals included parents working from home with increased opportunities to cook meals or families feeling unsafe in restaurants during the pandemic. Financial concerns may have also prompted some families to have more home-cooked meals, allowing parents to shop for bargains and plan additional meals with the leftovers, the researchers noted.
Barriers to home-cooked meals were also identified. Approximately 40% of parents reported being too busy to cook and 22% said they were too stressed to cook. These challenges were more commonly reported among parents with kids who were overweight.
“One fast food meal often exceeds the recommended fat, sodium, and calorie intake for the entire day without providing many nutrients,” Dr. Freed said. “Parents should consider using nutritional information to help their kids learn how to make healthier choices. Trying to make those meals even a little bit healthier can have an important impact.”
Freed GL, Singer DC, Gebremariam A, Schultz SL, Clark SJ. Parent views on fast food and family meals. Mott Poll Report. 2021;39(3).