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Do Parents Really Know What Their Kids Are Eating?

After school and evening are "crunch time" for most families. It's the time when crucial decisions get made that affect kids' fitness and weight. And that includes snacking.

To get an idea of what parents thought their kids were doing during this time, NPR conducted a poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

We also spoke to parents, like Deborah Richards from Oakland, Calif. She thinks she has a handle on her son Donta's eating habits.

"He's fussy but he eats healthy," she says. "He eats healthier than me."

But Donta doesn't think so. "I know for a fact I don't," he says. "My breakfast, I can say on the daily, is a pack of Skittles. I make sure I get one every morning."

"Skittles?!" gasps Richards. "I try to teach him better!"

Richards isn't alone. According to the poll, 87 percent of parents report their children are eating healthfully. But do parents really know what their kids — especially older kids — are eating?

Not according to high school senior Felix Pieske, from Portland, Maine.

"Middle school might have been the last time that I really talked to my parents about like, 'Oh, what did you eat today?' " says Pieske.

I still talk to my mom, Oya Autry. She thinks I have a good diet — lots of juices, water, fruits and salads, and not a lot of chips or fried foods.

And that sounds about right. Although, to be honest, I don't make it a point to keep track of what I eat.

However, some people, like 18-year-old Jorisha Mayo, know that they indulge, and do so starting right after school ends.

"I do occasionally eat unhealthy. I eat a lot of sugary foods and snacks," admits Mayo, from Concord, Calif. "I think I snack probably around the 3 to 4 [p.m.] zone. Then when it gets later, 11 or so, that's when I snack on my cookies and ice cream, and crackers or chips and stuff."

That's pretty normal. According to the poll, nearly half of children snacked on sweets, and a quarter ate chips the day before.

Lydia Tinajero, an expert on pediatric weight management at Oakland Children's Hospital, says some kids sneak their snacks.

"Some of the kids I work with that are overweight, they feel bad that they're eating things maybe they shouldn't," she says. "And so they sort of try and hide it, because at times they feel bad and they're a little embarrassed by it."

I don't intentionally hide food from my mom. But at the same time, I don't tell her every single thing I eat in a day, and she doesn't ask.

But for this assignment, I decided to keep a food diary, which I reviewed together with my mom.

I made some unhealthy choices during the week, including a bowl of crab fried rice and four Dorito chips for breakfast one day. But I also snacked on things like apples and granola bars.

Overall, my mom was pretty happy.

"Even those horrible snacks and weird breakfasts that I heard on the list, I think even those are still fairly healthy — four Doritos versus four bags of Doritos," she says.

However, I'm not convinced. I've always thought of myself as a healthy eater, but when I look at my food diary, I'm less sure.

Which got me wondering, where do we teenagers get our ideas about what healthy even means?

"That's a good question: What does healthy mean?" says Tinajero. "With pediatrics, healthy is about being balanced. I always tell kids ... are you putting the best thing into your body?"

Tinajero says that if you're in tune with your body — if you notice when you've had your fill of junk food for the week and decide to start eating better — then you're body will begin to tell you what it needs.

Which means my mom doesn't have to.

This story was produced by Youth Radio (with additional reporting from Blunt Radio).

The story is part of the series On the Run: How Families Struggle To Eat Well and Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.


Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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