Feeding children in the car after care? Research shows the danger
The Sector > Research > Feeding children in the car on the way home from ECEC may be contributing to obesity

Feeding children in the car on the way home from ECEC may be contributing to obesity

by Freya Lucas

May 02, 2024

Many parents utilising early childhood education and care (ECEC) services find the end of the day quite challenging. There is the tiredness of their own work days often coupled with peak hour traffic, the fractious children who may also be tired and hungry, and then more traffic to navigate on the way home. 


For some, this tough time is eased by giving the children something to eat and drink in the car on the way home, to make the commute a little smoother. Often these snacks and drinks are focused on convenience rather than nutrition, which is understandable. 


Researchers were keen to learn more about these patterns, re-examining data contained in daily food journals kept by more than 300 families of children who attended 30 long day care (LDC) centers that participated in the Preschool Eating and Activity Study (2009-2011). They found that the hour after parents and caregivers picked up their children stood out as a high-calorie, relatively less healthy part of the child’s overall diet.


Overall, these children, aged between three and five years, consumed more than 1,471 calories across the entire day—an amount on the high end of recommended daily limits. Of that amount, 290 calories, on average, were consumed in the hour after leaving LDC. That’s about 20 per cent of the day’s entire calorie intake.


An added concern for researchers was that the food and drink consumed in this window accounted for about 22 per cent of the day’s added sugar and about one-third of the sweet and salty snack foods the children ate.


“Every parent knows how busy that time of day can feel. Parents can feel stressed, the kids may be cranky, hungry, or tired. There’s nothing wrong with treats once in a while,” senior author Dr Kristen Copeland said.”But that car ride home also can be an opportunity to instill healthier habits instead of less healthy ones.”


Researchers suggest that busy parents make small changes such as stocking the car with veggie sticks, cheese, fruit slices, and low-sugar drinks such as water or milk. A few minutes of preparation can make it easier to skip the high-calorie drive-throughs and sugar-loaded packaged snacks.


“Children of preschool age are in a highly habit-forming time of their lives. They thrive on routine,” Dr Copeland said. “Children often look forward to the car ride home, which makes that time an opportunity to start a healthy snacking habit that could last a lifetime.”


Access the study in full here

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