Canadian researchers found children of college-educated parents eat more vegetables and drink less sugar than their peers. All kids, though, no matter their background, fell short of their nutritional requirements by eating insufficient amounts of whole grains and low-fat milk. "Our findings challenge this common notion that only low-income families feed their kids junk food because it appears wealthy families are not always making healthier choices either," said Dr. Jennifer Black, a food, nutrition and health professor at the University of British Columbia.

Hasn’t everyone had the experience of watching smart friends give their children something unspeakable to eat? In horror, we’ve seen (formerly admired) parents hand their tots some heavily processed meat goop attractively shaped into nuggets or push bowls of the worst, sugar-laden cereal in front of their kids for dinner. Many of us have also witnessed some stressed-out mother, poorly dressed and taking advantage of the free seats available in the mall’s food court, as she fishes from her purse a plastic bag of carrot sticks and cheese for her toddler. Seems we humans don’t always fall into the neat behavior boxes assigned to us.

For the current study, the researchers asked nearly 1,000 middle school students to report their daily food consumption both at school and while traveling to and from school. The study took place in Vancouver during 2012 and included 26 public schools. Less than half of the students said they’d consumed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat milk. Of the total participants, 31 percent reported drinking sugary drinks, while 20 percent ate packaged snack foods, and 17 percent ate fast food. Sadly, 15 percent said they went hungry.

Digging deeper, the researchers observed a link between a parent's educational attainment, often an indicator of socioeconomic status, and a child's diet. The study found, for instance, students whose parents had spent at least some time in college were 85 percent more likely to eat vegetables during the school week than students with parents who completed high school or less. Children whose parents graduated from college were 67 percent less likely to consume sugary drinks, such as soda. However, the majority of children, regardless of socioeconomic status, did not consume enough low-fat milk or whole grains on school days.

The authors of the study speculate that higher priced products, like vegetables, may not be purchased and packed by lower-income families needing to make choices about food. "The present study suggests that there is room for improvement in school-day dietary quality for students from all [socio-economic status] backgrounds in Vancouver," wrote the authors in their conclusion.

Source: Ahmadi N, Black JL, Velazquez CE, Chapman GE, Veenstra G. Associations between socio-economic status and school-day dietary intake in a sample of grade 5–8 students in Vancouver, Canada. Public Health Nutrition. 2014.