You know your kids have a sweet tooth. But could you be overindulging it without realizing, just because you’re single?

Most parents have a standard list of kid concerns: grades, friends, growth curves, along with who the hell are Zach and Cody? Single parents have pretty much the same list, but it does occasionally get torqued up by The Situation: Does not being in a traditional nuclear family have any long-term downside? And what can you do about it?

You might as well surrender to the Disney Channel now, but you should consider keeping an eye on sweetened beverages. A new study from San Francisco State University finds that kids from  recently separated or divorced families are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened beverages than kids in families where the parents are married.  And this raises their risk for obesity and heart disease as they grow older (not to mention tooth decay!).

The connection between family breakups and obesity

The link between divorce and obesity isn’t a new one. For a couple of decades now, scientists have noticed that, after controlling for socioeconomic and physical activity, the children of divorce are more likely to have a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) and thus more likely to be obese as adults.

Does overweight necessarily mean unhealthy? That can be a gray area: There is tension between body image and our understanding of how BMI influences health. But with 1 million kids experiencing divorce every year, and 34 percent of U.S. 6- to 11-year-olds considered overweight, instead of obsessing over a scale you might just take a look at what you’re serving for dinner – and how often your family’s eating meals together.

Divorce shouldn’t mean the end of the family dinner

E. Mavis Heatherington, the ground-breaking author of For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, was the one of the first academics to make a career of studying single parents. While she is best known for noting the resilience of most children who experience divorce, she also observed a decline in family mealtimes.

Jeff Cookston, professor and chair of psychology at SF State, wanted to take a closer look at how this decline in eating meals together might affect dietary habits in separated or recently divorced families. His team looked at four behaviors closely tied to BMI in adults: produce consumption, how often you eat meals out, whether you eat breakfast at all, and the consumption of sugary beverages.

Do you use sugar as a post-separation stress-reliever?

While divorcing families tended to eat less produce, the real difference was in the juice. Kids in intact families drank a sugary beverage one out of every three days, while those in the study drank 1.3 sugary beverages a day. Four times as much!

“That was a pretty big difference,” says Cookston. And it was easy to understand: Amid the stress of divorce, the sugar buzz is an easy fix. The brain experiences pleasure, the meal goes a little more smoothly. Often enough, the parent doesn’t even notice the beverage choice.

Connecting with your kids may cut their sugar intake

One encouraging finding in Cookston’s study was that difference in sugar consumption between children of divorce and children whose parents were still married goes away when you account for family routines—activities that connect parents and children. In other words, the more engaged single parents were with their kids, the less sugary drinks those kids consumed.

The study was meant to be preliminary, but the findings were strong enough to encourage Cookston to proceed directly to devising an intervention. And while that work is not yet finished, he’s still free to advocate for the shared mealtime as a healthy family foundation.

Turn the chore of meal-making into a whole-family ritual

As a single parent, you may not have extra time to spend bonding, when you’re busy doing all the other things your kids need. But including your kids in meal prep and eating together can be a big part of the solution. “All of these bits and pieces of family life can get wrapped up into mealtime,” he says. Planning meals, shopping, preparing, eating, and cleaning – together – is a tremendous opportunity to teach about nutrition and to solidify family routines.

Your presence is the best stress-reliever of all

That means being present with your kids, physically and emotionally, but also being “present” in the mindfulness sense – living in the moment. “When you are cooking you are very much in the moment,” Cookston says. “You don’t want to cut your finger, you want to make sure you browned everything right. That’s family time together, and it’s very present. We don’t have to think about the fact that mom’s not here with us. We don’t have to think about a number of things that might be distracting and stressful for families.”

“And quite frankly, cooking is a life skill children need,” Cookston adds. “It’s much easier for me to just make dinner for my family than to enlist the kids’ involvement and engagement, but the kids don’t learn the life skills in that way, and ultimately I can’t delegate that work to them later.”

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Photo by  Kishore Ragav Ganesh Kumar on Unsplash


Erik Ness has been writing about science and the environment from Madison, Wisconsin for more years than he cares to disclose. His work has been published widely, from Discover and Prevention to CURE and Milwaukee Magazine.

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