They sit there, five little pasta shells, nestled in a shallow bath of melted butter and Parmesan: the remains of dinner for my toddler son and daughter. I cannot help myself. I reach over, grab the pink plastic bowl and scoop a bite into my mouth. At that moment, I realize something has gone terribly wrong.
A decade ago, my cholesterol hit two-alarm levels, and several doctors encouraged me to adopt a healthier diet. I purged the salami and hot dogs from the fridge and learned to love egg whites and low-fat cheese. Still, my cholesterol edged up. I redoubled my discipline.
But now there are two small people whose tastes skew the dinner and snack menus: buttery cheese and fatty salami, pasta, salty hot dogs, French fries, Goldfish crackers. None are daily staples, but they are hardly strangers.
It’s in the middle of shoving the rest of the pasta shells into my mouth that I realize how far I’ve backslid. I play garbage pail at dinner (proudly, hate to waste that extra bite), and when I’m making a good-night snack for one of my kids, I usually make one more for myself. A few days ago, I considered eating a piece of mozzarella my daughter had dropped. Onto the pavement. At the zoo.
Sure, a lot of guys can gain weight once they’re married, and then when their wives are pregnant (no woman should drink a milkshake alone). But I discovered there is scant research about what happens to parental diets and weight when children come on the scene, though one nearly decade-old Duke University study found that a father’s risk of obesity rises 4 percent with each child (and a mother’s rises 7 percent).
Truls Ostbye, a professor of family medicine at Duke who led the research, said the rise in men’s weight was more surprising; women have hormonal changes. But the study didn’t reach conclusions about the reasons for the phenomenon. He said he could only speculate why fathers gain weight: time for exercise drops, more snacks around the house, less time to prepare food.
“It’s insidious,” he said. Then again, on a positive note, he said that our nutrition challenges could result from sharing more family meals. “There’s something kind of nice,” he said, “eating as a social function.”
But there is certainly more going on, I thought. As I hunted for answers, I reached out to dads who blog about food and cooking, and nutrition experts. They offered some suggestions for getting my diet back on track, and shared some theories about why fatherhood can lead to dietary backsliding.
“It fits me to a T,” moaned Mike Vrobel, father of three in Copley, Ohio, and the author of DadCooksDinner, a blog chronicling his nightly efforts cooking things like T-bone steak with olive oil, garlic and rosemary marinade; foil-pouch green beans; and footlong hot dogs.
And he makes carbs, lots and lots of carbs. Not that he likes it that way, but his three children love them, especially his oldest, Ben, 11.
“He’s a very picky eater across a bunch of cultures,” said Mr. Vrobel, 44. “Tortillas with nothing on it, white rice with nothing on it, bread with nothing on it.” Not long after Ben was born, Mr. Vrobel, who is 6 feet 3 inches, dropped to 180 pounds from a high of 260 after rigid power-dieting, portion control, death to carbs.
Then “my weight started to drift back up,” he said. “I’m now at 225, or 230. Maybe 235.”
When a crime is committed, prosecutors theorize about motive and opportunity. As Mr. Vrobel and I talked, we realized the “opportunity” that had emerged to change our diet: our refrigerators and dinner tables had begun to bend to the palates of our children.
As to motive, why lick the pasta bowl clean? We agreed that we both felt a desire to not leave uneaten food, to be the garbage pail. Any of us might do it as we clear the table, but I find it an oddly manly feeling, like drinking that last shot to prove something. Maybe it’s something inherited.
“My dad’s favorite move was to say, ‘Are you done with that?’ while he was already spearing it with a fork,” Mr. Vrobel said. “That’s my job, and I do enjoy it. Portion control was so much easier before kids.”
Anthony Fabricatore, 37, the senior director of research for Nutrisystem and a former obesity researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says that portion control is key. But he confessed that he’s had trouble exercising it since the birth of his sons, now 6 and 2. His cholesterol has been rising to borderline numbers.
He finds himself polishing off his son’s whole-milk yogurt before having his own breakfast, and at night digs into the box of ginger snaps. He isn’t sure why he does it.
“I’m a psychologist and somewhat of an obesity expert,” he said. “This should be easier for me. It’s not strictly rational. There’s a lot of biology and a lot of emotion.”
The same patterns can be true, of course, for moms. But Mr. Fabricatore said that dads would often tell themselves that they could exercise and burn off the extra calories. Apparently, doing knee bends at the zoo to pick up my daughter’s discarded mozzarella doesn’t count.
So what to do? Here are a handful of solutions from father-bloggers and nutrition experts.
THE LADLE-FREE DINNER TABLE
Want to avoid being the mop-up guy at dinner?
“Portion the food out on the stove, before you start eating,” Mr. Fabricatore said. “Add a little distance and effort to get a second helping.”
And try portioning the food in the fridge, like cutting the block of Cheddar into small containers. That’s the advice of Rena Wing, professor of psychiatric behavior at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where she studies weight loss tactics. Her point: when portions are big, our appetites can follow. “Do the prepackaging for yourself,” she said.
REALITY CHECK FOR RATIONALIZATIONS
Professor Wing said people make up all kinds of excuses to keep eating. And she laughed knowingly when I talked about the idea that I, and other dads I talked to, feel as if we don’t want to waste food.
“Your eating food is not helping anyone else who is starving,” she pointed out.
But, I countered, there’s also a job to be done, in the same way some college guys rise to the challenge of downing the last beer.
“Being the big man on campus is one thing, being the garbage pail doesn’t seem quite as positive,” she said, adding that I should do some “cognitive restructuring.” A little humor might help, too. “To the extent that someone is feeling good because they’re still in a college mentality, you could poke fun at it,” she said.
Is it just me, or is she challenging me to a hot-dog eating contest?
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
John Donohue, 43, who edited “Man With a Pan,” a book about fathers who cook family dinners, offers a way to please children without having to get the waistline of his pants let out: he makes a single meal that everyone can customize.
For instance, he might roast a chicken with thyme, red peppers, onion, garlic and red potatoes. Then he divides the meal into different serving plates: chicken on one, potatoes on another and a salad. Mr. Donohue’s two daughters, ages 5 and 7, can choose what they want with their chicken, and he can mix to his own specs.
“I can have more salad, and they can have more potatoes,” said Mr. Donahue, whose blog is Stay at Stove Dad. He uses the same strategy when making, say, a big salad so the girls can pick the things they like and he can mix all the vegetables together to make something filling. “It keeps the healthy option on the table,” he said.
LABELS ARE USEFUL, TO A POINT
Once I became aware how much my children were dictating my diet, I started reading nutrition labels, especially the cholesterol information. It’s a bad idea to obsess about labels, said Adam Drewnowski, director for the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.
Obsessing about a single nutritional measure (cholesterol, salt, sugars or even saturated fats) is losing currency as a way of assessing diet, Dr. Drewnowski said. Better to think in terms of your whole diet, allowing the sprinkle of Parmesan so long as the big picture is healthy.
Also, he said, recognize that your children are simultaneously growing and moving all the time. They crave energy-dense foods that you may not need. So don’t try to purge your house of those foods.
Now that some of the fatty foods are going to stay in the house, here’s a look at my options for living with them.
One: I become an ascetic, a monk, taking deep cleansing breaths before I open the fridge to free myself of the desire for leftover chicken fingers. Not going to happen.
Two: I indulge my taste buds, my paternal machismo and my aversion to wasting any food slathered in butter, arteries be damned. Good plan, except that will just speed my transition to a balanced diet of anti-cholesterol meds.
Three: Muster some of the very same discipline I’m trying to teach my children. We don’t let them gorge on television, and they generally go to bed at bedtime.
I can pick my spots, too. I can scrape some uneaten kid food into the actual garbage pail. And hey there, half-eaten plate of creamy pasta shells, don’t sit there staring at me. I’m the man of the house.