BACKGROUND: Nutrition is among the important determinants of diseases, and the social patterning of early eating habits may offer keys to prevention. We studied associations between selected indicators of adolescents' health-related dietary habits (daily intake of candy, soft drinks, fruit and vegetables) and parental socio-economic position (education, social class and income). METHODS: The material consisted of participants in the adolescent part (Young-HUNT) of the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study during the period 1995-97, 8817 girls and boys aged 13-19 years (89% of all students in junior high schools and high schools in a Norwegian county). Data on parental socio-economic position was available from the adult part of HUNT and Statistics Norway. Cross-sectional data analyses were performed using cross-tables and binary logistic regression. RESULTS: Of the indicators of socio-economic position used, the parent's educational level, in particular the mother's education, showed the highest impact on adolescents' health-related dietary habits. Girls with the least educated mothers had a prevalence odds ratio of 2.5 (1.8-3.3) for drinking soft drinks daily and 0.6 (0.5-0.8) for eating vegetables daily as compared to girls with the most educated mothers. The corresponding numbers for boys were 1.9 (1.5-2.4) and 0.6 (0.5-0.8). Parental social class also showed gradients in adolescents' health-related dietary habits, but there was virtually no gradient by income. CONCLUSION: Higher levels of parental education, in particular the mother's education, are clearly associated with healthier dietary habits among adolescents. This social patterning should be recognized in public health interventions.