Sci-fly: COVID 19 related stress in parents: food parenting practices and child snack intake during the COVID-19 pandemic

Around the globe the corona (COVID-19) pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to the lives of many families. The majority of children and parents were forced to stay at home for a prolonged time due to mandatory lockdowns with consequent closure of non-essential businesses, kindergartens and schools, and cancellation of out-of-home leisure time activities and social gatherings. Furthermore, parents were deprived of resources (e.g. daycare, public libraries) and support systems (i.e. from family members, friends, school or other institutions), and were required to combine work (from home), childcare, and home schooling. Parents have thus experienced particular pressures during the pandemic due to disruption of habits and daily routines of work and life.

Previous research shows that stress can impact parents’ food parenting practices. Food parenting practices are active techniques or behaviors used by parents to influence a child’s food intake. Parents who report more stress may use more coercive practices that are less responsive to children’s hunger and satiety cues. Stressed parents may also be more likely to use food or snacks as coping strategies to manage children’s behavior or emotions.

Parents experienced increased levels of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this stress was associated with the way they interacted with their children around food. Specifically, parents reporting higher pandemic-associated stress reported more efforts to plan and create routines around meals or snacks (structure), and more positive interactions in terms of eating and engaging with their children around mealtime (autonomy support) but also more use of food to manage their children’s emotions (coercive). When parents reported greater pandemic-associated stress, children’s intake of sweet and savory snacks was higher and was associated with snack parenting practices. To protect children’s nutritional health during the pandemic, guidance for parents is therefore warranted,. A limitation of the study was that the findings may be less applicable to racial and ethnic minorities of low SES families living in different geographic regions, seeing as the sample was weighted towards wealthier, more educated families (mostly college graduates), and the majority of respondents were white.

What has been researched?
– The first aim was to briefly characterize parents’ food parenting practices (i.e. positive mealtime practices, general feeding practices and snack parenting practices) during the COVID-19 pandemic and current stress (COVID-19 specific and financial stress) experienced by parents due to the pandemic.
– The second aim was to investigate relationships between measures of food parenting practices and parents’ COVID-19-specific stress. 
– The third aim was to test whether effects of parents’ COVID-19-specific stress on frequency of children’s snack food intake could be partially explained by snack parenting practices.

Who participated in the research?
318 parents of 2-12 year old children from the USA. 

How was the research conducted?
Parents (N = 318) of 2–12-year old children completed a cross-sectional online survey assessing current COVID-19-specific stress, pre-COVID-19 stress, financial stress (e.g. food insecurity), food parenting practices, and child snack intake frequency. Structural Equation Modeling was used to model simultaneous paths of relationships and test direct and indirect effects.

1. Stress, including financial hardship, was higher compared with before the crisis. 
2. The majority of children had regular mealtimes and irregular snack times. 
3. Higher COVID-19-specific stress was associated with more structure and positive interactions (e.g. eating with or engaging with child around mealtimes) but also more non-nutritive use of food and snacks (e.g. emotional and instrumental feeding).
4. Higher COVID-19-specific stress was also associated with greater child intake frequency of sweet and savory snacks, with some evidence for mediation by snack parenting practices.

Jansen, E., Thapaliya, G., Aghababian, A., Sadler, J., Smith, K., & Carnell, S. (2021). Parental stress, food parenting practices and child snack intake during the COVID-19 pandemic. Appetite, 161, 105119. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2021.105119

This sci-fly was written by Maaike Koning (Radboud University) for RAD-blog, the blog about smoking, alcohol, drugs and diet.

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