Stanford researchers surveyed how adolescents make
independent food decisions.
They found that when teens have health-oriented food
rules at home, they are more likely to eat healthier
on their own.
It turns out that kids are paying more attention
than you think when you say broccoli is good for
According to a new study by Stanford researchers,
adolescents who have health-oriented food rules at
home are more likely to make healthy eating
decisions on their own.
The finding is good news for parents who want their
kids to eat their vegetables.
“It is important for parents to understand whether
having food rules – and more specifically, what
kinds of food rules – may help encourage healthy
eating,” wrote Stanford doctoral candidates Jennifer
Wang and Priya Fielding-Singh in a study published
May 14 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Wang and Fielding-Singh found that rules centered
around health – for example, only allowing junk food
for special occasions; or that a vegetable must be
eaten at dinner – may be effective because they
emphasize the importance of considering healthiness
when making food choices.
Rules unrelated to health, such as no cell phones at
the dinner table, had no effect on guiding teens to
make healthy food decisions.
To better understand adolescents’ independent food
choices, Fielding-Singh and Wang surveyed the
student body, 1,246 adolescents in total, of a
diverse San Francisco Bay Area high school.
Students were asked about their dietary beliefs and
behaviors, and also about their perceptions of
parental attitudes and practices related to food.
“The students that participated in our study
understood what foods were healthy and unhealthy,”
said Fielding-Singh, a sociology doctoral candidate
in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences
who co-authored the study with Wang, also a doctoral
candidate studying environment and resources with a
minor in psychology.
“We adults tend to underestimate how cognizant
teenagers are of the healthiness of what they are
consuming,” said Fielding-Singh.
But Wang and Fielding-Singh wanted to know more than
just what teenagers thought about food.
They were curious to know how teens actually behaved
when they didn’t think their parents were watching
“We wanted to see how teens make food choices when
they are on their own,” said Fielding-Singh.
So the two researchers embedded a controlled
experiment within their study: at the beginning of
the survey, the high schoolers were told that their
participation automatically entered them into a
raffle where they could win two snacks of their
choice to pick up from the school office the
Neither students nor teachers were aware that the
snack raffle was part of the researchers’
From there, the researchers ran several conditions
to manipulate whether teenagers thought their
parents would have to approve their snack choices.
In one condition, students were told that they would
need parental approval before they could pick up
In another condition, students were told that they
would not need their parents’ approval to pick up
Students were then shown 10 snacks, five of which
were healthier and five of which were less healthy.
These snacks included yogurt, hummus with pretzels,
and apple slices, as well as gummy worms, Oreo
cookies, and Cheetos.
Students were then asked to choose two snacks.
Wang and Fielding-Singh found that adolescents who
reported having at least one health-oriented food
rule at home had significantly higher odds of
choosing a healthier snack – regardless of how much
parental oversight they perceived.
In addition, students with a health-oriented food
rule reported that they were more likely to feel
good when they made healthy choices and feel bad
when they made unhealthy ones.
This study builds on Fielding-Singh and Wang’s
earlier research that found socioeconomic
differences in how mothers and adolescents talk
Consistent with prior research, they found that
gender, age and parental education played a role in
healthy eating decisions: being female, in a higher
grade, and having a parent with higher levels of
education increased a teen’s chances of picking
However, one finding to emerge from their study was
that a health-oriented food rule had as big an
effect as parental education on food choice.
For more information
Table talk: How mothers and adolescents across
socioeconomic status discuss food.