How Parents Can Be Nutritional Gatekeepers

by diabetes care guide

Nutritional Gatekeepers: Parents Regaining Control of the Household Food Supply.

child_lunchboxIn a short period of time, we have watched our environment evolve into a high tech, sedentary, junk food infused society.  Healthy, balanced eating is often overshadowed by a media frenzy of sugary cereals, deep fried foods and pop- all of which are found in oversized portions. Although it is difficult to influence the public food supply, there is one aspect of our immediate environment that we can control –our household food supply. Most of us can attribute a majority of our dietary intake and nutrition habits to the foods available at home. Our household food supply is directly influenced by the person that shops, purchases and stocks the pantry.

Nowadays, parents are often caught between the repeated nagging of their children for the sugary treats they’ve seen on television and their parental responsibility to provide nutritious food to sustain growth and development. This can seem like a difficult situation to juggle; however, it shouldn’t be balancing act. Why do we assume that our children know what’s best for them? Why do we give them such responsibilities before they are barely ready to pack their lunches or walk to school? This seems especially unfair, considering this freedom to choose comes before the responsibility of knowing the what, when, where, how much and why behind eating behaviours? This isn’t to say that children need to know the answers to these questions; however, we should lay some ground work that fosters long term, healthy habits.

It is not about balancing or negotiating when it comes to our children’s eating habits. It’s about dividing the responsibility, knowing each other’s role and trusting each other to do it1. This is the philosophy of Ellyn Satter, an influential dietitian and author on feeding healthy families. She calls this the division of responsibility. The parent chooses what, when and where to eatand the child chooses how much and whether1.

The concept of choosing what our children eat is reminiscent of Brian Wansink’s idea of the nutritional gatekeeper.  A nutritional gatekeeper is the person responsible for acquiring and preparing meals within a household2. A survey conducted by Wansink in 2005, found that nutritional gatekeepers controlled 72% of a household’s dietary intake, offering a significant opportunity to make healthy choices for the family2. The idea is to empower parents to regain control. It reminds us that parents are providers, not negotiators. On the other hand, we don’t want parents to become household tyrants on a no-fat/low-fat, junk-free rampage. In order to find middle ground in fostering healthy eating habits for our children, there are a few key points to consider.

It is important to ensure that children get a variety of foods in their diet to support steep growth spurts and maintain optimal nutritional status.  Variety also assists in building a broad repertoire of foods and helps cultivate a broad range of palates. Without variety, our kids develop a narrow list of preferred foods and lose the confidence and curiosity to explore new ones.  Increasing the variety of nutritious foods in the diet, especially in the way of fruits and vegetables, has also been shown to naturally limit foods that are less nutritious3. Keeping a constant supply of these foods in the household will support a healthy food environment.

Success is not only achievable for those open and willing to try new foods. Even picky eaters can achieve the same success. Presentation, preparation and persistence can make a big difference. A “ketchup happy face”, a personalized set of cutlery, or involving children in meal preparation, such as having them put together their sandwiches, fajitas or fruit skewers can help foster positive attitudes toward food. It is also important to be persistent. It may take weeks, months or years for a child to muster up the courage or curiosity to try new foods. Being persistent in having these foods available would prevent a missed opportunity.

Having nutritious foods in the refrigerator is one step towards healthy eating; however, these options need to be readily available and easily accessible if parents want to maximize their efforts. Simply having fruit and vegetables washed, cut and visible can help increase intake4. The idea is to have nutritious foods readily available and have less nutritious foods more difficult to obtain. Simply keeping these foods on top shelves, in cupboards or out of the house all together can help limit mindless snacking. If you think back to fifth grade, we ate what was at home because we had no money or means to get what we wanted, when we wanted.

Keep most of the junk out, but allow for occasional treats too. We are all vulnerable to the deprive and overindulge cycle of eating. The more one restricts, the stronger the craving and the more control we lose when we are presented with the food we know is unhealthy5. Although many of us would like to think our children spend most of their time at home with their parents, the reality is that they spend half of their day at school, playing extracurricular sports, attending birthday parties, and so on.  We don’t want them to associate birthday with cake, but rather a good time with friends. Nor do we want to equate sports with a celebratory pizza or school with sharing Twinkies from friends at recess. Providing these foods occasionally at home, as a treat and not a reward, may help break these associations and dampen the bingeing effect of never being allowed a treat5.  However, the key is occasional so that parents find themselves providing, rather than negotiating.

The greatest health promotion strategy can be found in the home. It is important to remember that nutritional gatekeepers are central to feeding a healthy family. Parents can start by taking control of the household food supply and by making food a positive experience, from kitchen to table. Healthy eating may not be the norm in our society, but it can certainly be the norm in our households.

“How Parents Can Be Nutritional Gatekeepers.” By Jasmine Arellano, a dietitian at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (SHSC) in Toronto.


  1. Satter, Ellyn. (2008). Secrets of feeding a healthy family. Madison: Kelcy Press.
  2. Wansink, B. (2006). Nutritional gatekeepers and the 72% solution. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(9):1324–1327.
  3. Epstein, L., et al. (2001). Increasing fruit and vegetable intake and decreasing fat and sugar intake in families at risk for childhood obesity. Obesity Research. 9(3):171-178.
  4. Wansink, B. (2006). Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York: Bantam.
  5. Burton, P., et al. (2007). The influence of retrained and external eating patterns on overeating. Appetite. 49: 191-197.

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