A downturn or a window for opportunity? How Danish and French parents perceive changes in healthy eating in the transition to parenthood


Alarming childhood obesity rates call for research into the factors that influence a child’s environment. Although parents have a large influence on children’s eating behaviours, surprisingly little research has explored parental healthy eating patterns. We conducted face-to-face interviews with parents of young children (up to 4 years old) living in Denmark (n = 16) and in France (n = 14) to provide insights into how the transition to parenthood affects the perceived healthfulness of eating behaviours. A problem-centred, Life-Course approach was employed, exploring the topics of interest from the perspective of the participants, and then interpreting these on the background of Social Cognitive Theory. From a cross-cultural sample of mostly well-educated parents living in couples, we found that the transition to parenthood represents a turning point for eating behaviour. Marked differences in dietary changes were perceived across four stages: 1) pregnancy, 2) first months with the baby, 3) complementary feeding and 4) child shares family meals. The findings point to an opposite cross-country perception of the impact of parenthood on food behaviours, and to the idea of what we called an “equalizing effect” on individuals’ diet, where having a child triggered “unhealthy” eaters to consider dietary improvements while it imposed challenges to “healthy” eaters to maintain their satisfactory food habits. Contrasting differences on perceived behaviour change mainly appeared in terms of food ethics concern, meat consumption, cooking enjoyment, dietary diversity and sugar consumption. The proposition that low food-health-oriented individuals become healthier and (some) more environmentally conscious, reveals an opportunity for effective strategies and public health messages targeting health and food-ethics behaviour. Nevertheless, findings point to a need to consider individualized health support, addressing parental self-care, physiological changes, stress and negative emotions of early parenthood.