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Mothers’ Experience of Feeding Their Families

Despite all advances in gender equality, mothers overwhelmingly remain responsible for putting food on the family table.

Thus, any attempt at changing eating behaviours requires a sound understanding of the factors that determine mothers’ food choices for their families.

This issue is the topic of a study by Joyce Slater and colleagues from the University of Manitoba, published in Health Promotion International.

The researchers used qualitative methodology based on grounded theory to better understand the phenomena of food choice and food provisioning among employed middle-income mothers from Winnipeg.

All participants were born in Canada, were Caucasian, worked at least half-time at paid employment, lived with a male spouse working full-time, had at least one child between ages 5 and 12, had some post-secondary education and self-identified as having the primary responsibility for acquiring and preparing food for her family.

The methods consisted of extensive interviews and use of food choice maps to explore a wide range of determinants of food practices and choices.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the number one constraint that limited the preparation of healthy home cooked meals was lack of time!

As one participant put it:

“Life is far too rushed! Especially if you’re only getting home [from work] at, like anything after five is just a disaster. If you’re not home before quarter to five it’s like, you’re not going to make it! ‘Cause there’s evening events that are going to start and it’s like, oh man, now it’s the rush and a panic.”

The two main reasons for lack of time were employment and kids activities.

“All the women in this study described their family lives as being extremely busy due to their employment and children being engaged in multiple extracurricular events, which were felt to be important for their development. This contracted their food preparation time, however, resulting in the frequent use of convenience foods or take-away from restaurants, which also led to feelings of stress.”

The second major determinant of food choices were ‘picky eaters’:

“My daughter’s very picky, so who knows what she’ll eat what nights … it’s usually just a Pizza Pop or leftovers of a quick bowl of soup. We try to get her to eat what we eat, but it’s challenging. You don’t want it to be a battleground.”

While breakfast and lunch were rarely eaten together, most mothers appreciated the importance of having the family assembled for dinner – however, this also rarely happened due to busy and conflicting schedules.

Although mothers collectively perceived food as an important determinant of health,

“Many of the foods children preferred were perceived to be unhealthy by the mothers, but were frequently purchased because they knew they would be eaten, or it was believed that the children should have their way at least some of the time.”

Reasons for not eating enough fruits and vegetables boiled down to:

“…children not liking vegetables; they took too much time and work to prepare; it was not worth making them only for themselves and the women did not want to risk spending time making vegetables if they were going to be wasted.”

Although mothers appreciated that fathers may have a role to play – they preferred to make these choices themselves:

“Sometimes I wish he would help a bit more, but I still think I’m better off with the majority of it. Because, I said, I don’t think he would make as good of choices. He would give the kids Pizza Pops for lunch every day, and … vegetables?! Who cares? What do you need vegetables for!?”

“[Help with] groceries? No (laughter), not very often! I mean, you know, if I’m really really strapped he will go out but that’s not that often. He really doesn’t like grocery shopping.”

All of these findings have significant implications for improving population health:

“By purchasing and serving convenience foods over vegetables and healthier meals that take more preparation time, the women reinforce structural food norms within the family and within the retail grocery landscape that provides these foods for purchase. “

“Shifting norms surrounding the efforts put into food preparation are mutually reinforced by the women’s values, beliefs and identities, permitting the frequent use of these foods, thereby saving time. This is compounded by working outside the home and a busy family life, which leave considerably less time for preparing healthy foods and eating together. “

As the authors point out, educating mothers (or fathers) about healthy eating, although important, is insufficient to really change behaviour.

“Public health policy-makers should expand nutrition education initiatives to include … a more balanced discussion of domestic food work rather than perpetuating the current discourse on child obesity calling for greater ‘parental’ (maternal) responsibility. This could also include providing more flexibility for employees (male and female) to work part-time.

In addition, strategies to promote the uptake of more family food responsibility by male partners and children should be explored and promoted. A step towards this could be achieved through a re-introduction of school-based nutrition and food skills, not through traditional ‘home ec’ curriculum with gender-specific stereotypes, but teaching basic principles to feed young men and women, and their future families, within the current food environment.”

As I’ve discussed before, when trying to understand behaviours, it is far more important to explore the ‘why’ than the ‘what’.

This study certainly reminds us that for many, the key barrier to healthy eating is not lack of information on nutrients and food groups but rather having far too few minutes in your day.

Remember, the real problem with fast food is more the ‘fast’ than the ‘food’

Edmonton, Alberta

Slater J, Sevenhuysen G, Edginton B, & O’neil J (2011). ‘Trying to make it all come together’: structuration and employed mothers’ experience of family food provisioning in Canada. Health promotion international PMID: 21693474


  1. I am a decent cook and try to use fresh ingredients and prepare things from “scratch” as much as possible. But as my kids get older and involved in more activities I feel the same crunch described in this study. I have to do a lot more advance planning and prep – cooking on weekends and evening before, weekly menu, etc. in order to avoid the temptation of the drive-through. These things help but I think what is making the biggest difference is changing my concept of what constitutes a “meal”, e.g. sandwiches and a platter of fresh cut vegatables is a pretty quick dinner, especially if the kids are kept occupied “helping” peel cucumbers and carrots. I would love to see more help with menu planning and really, really quick meal alternatives. I find that many suggestions for quick family meals in magazines, etc. are simply not workable, either due to picky eaters or time and effort involved (in either prep or shopping or both). On crunch nights “quick” means on the table within 15-20 minutes. That’s a tall order for anyone, even with the skills and knowledge required for healthy food prep. The drive-through is very tempting and wins more often than I’d like to admit.

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  2. The involvement of fathers in feeding their families is critical in addressing this problem. If I can count on Kraft more than I can count on my husband to help get dinner on the table, all the workplace flexibility in the world won’t help–my ‘extra’ time will get consumed by carting the kid around and putting out more fires at home. Kraft will still come through in the end.

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  3. “Public health policy-makers should expand nutrition education initiatives to include … a more balanced discussion of domestic food work rather than perpetuating the current discourse on child obesity calling for greater ‘parental’ (maternal) responsibility.”

    Amen! Any recommendations on obesity from the government should go away all together. The government should provide weight-neutral information on nutrition and exercise, and could suggest regular weight monitoring in the name of maintenance, but should make it clear that weight change should always happen in the context of a professional, patient/client – doctor, relationship. I wish my weight change had happened that way.

    Of course, in my fantasy doctors would understand how difficult maintaining a weight change is, how dangerous weight cycling is, and could offer good guidance based in reasonable expectations and evidence-based research, not cultural mythology.

    I am always happy to see your colleagues responding positively to your work, Dr. Sharma. It gives me hope for your field.

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  4. Interesting study! As a working Mom of 2 I can agree with many of the quotes from the study. I think for me what made me truely engage in the shift to virtually all homemade food was an acceptance of what may constitute a home cooked meal. Sme nights (like tonight) it is simple spaghetti and meat sauce (sauce out of a jar with added lean ground beef) and a plate of chopped veggies. Fast and healthy without the drive-thru. Fancy? NO! On really desperate nights we have what we call “food on a plate”. Our version of a cold plate really. Which includes fresh fruit, chopped veggies, sliced cheese and leftover chicken or whatever protein we had the night before. I do take the time every Friday or Saturday night to plot out weekly activities and a meal plan (only take me about 1/2 hour). Somehow over the years I just decided this was a priority for me. So the time I take to plan and prepare meals means something else has to fall off. I’m Ok with this now, so it means my house may not be as clean as I’d like it and sometimes I decide not to enrol my kids in an activity if it makes life to busy. Added bonus – the hubby now does the grocery shopping. I provide him with the list and off he trots as he get to listen to podcasts while doing it. I’m proud of my kitchen skills but recognize that developing them took time (years) and a shift in priorities for me.

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  5. OK… I’m assuming my “whistle blower” side!… Could you tell me when we (as society and as searcher) we gone too indicate they “missing” part of this family equation: “FatherHOOD”! Event Slater et al. mention at p9a/11: “Evidence suggests that Canadian mothers feel time scarcity more acutely than fathers (Duxbury et al., 1994; Zukewich, 2003).”
    SOoooo…. What wrong whit that picture? Hoooo Ya, “the” other half in family part missing. Absence of result, IT an result! Maybe…Only maybe IF and only IF fathers take more space in “family” place, Mother would have more: TIME…. FUN… and MOMEY…
    And as searcher, when we analyses data like if non-attendance of father it granted: I think we miss lead conclusion of our result. And on this topic I acknowledge the effort of Slater et al. As they indicate in conclusion p 9b/11:
    “This would include, as Schubert states, a more balanced discussion of domestic food work rather than perpetuating the current discourse on child obesity calling for greater ‘parental’ (maternal) responsibility (Schubert, 2008). This could also include providing more flexibility for employees (male and female) to work part-time. In addition, strategies to promote the uptake of more family food responsibility by male partners and children should be explored and promoted.”

    Well, let’s continued them effort!

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  6. “I don’t think he would make as good of choices. He would give the kids Pizza Pops for lunch every day, and … vegetables?! Who cares? What do you need vegetables for!?”

    Sounds like that woman is raising one more “kid” than she thinks she is.

    I’m also not sure what it means to say that the dinner table is a “battleground.” My mom cooked some stuff I hated. To this day, I would sooner go hungry than eat split pea soup. But she cooked it, and if we didn’t eat it, too bad. And we survived. One night of hunger won’t kill you. And ultimately, I choked some of it down, and my self-esteem wasn’t irreparably destroyed by it.

    It wasn’t a “battleground” for one simple reason: we knew Mom was going to win. And believe it or not, we didn’t hate her guts for it. We just knew she was in charge. (Betas worry about being hated for being in charge. Alphas just get the job done.)

    People need to realize that being a parent is a tough job and be aware of that BEFORE they have the kids, and get over their insecurities. And unpopular though it may be to say this, women need to make sure that men who are giant babies themselves don’t reproduce. We had a real father when I was growing up, so my mom didn’t have to do it all by herself. My dad wouldn’t have handed up pizza pops because he took his role seriously.

    If you don’t recognize how hard raising kids is before you have them, you end up caught flat-footed by the effort it takes and just shove pizza pops at them to shut them up. If you don’t recognize in time that His Majesty The Baby is a bad choice for your kids’ father, you will end up a married single mother who has to do it all.

    However, whether all of this is helpful to a family stuck in that situation is another matter. It sounds a lot like people are looking for a way out of having made bad decisions — having kids without appreciating the workload and having had kids with a guy who shouldn’t have reproduced in the first place. *sigh* It’s all about how to dig oneself OUT of a hole at that point. I’m not sure what CAN be helpful.

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  7. As a physician, first of all I want to commend you on you and Yoni on your excellent book, Best Weight, for healthcare professionals. I have sent copies to several colleagues and find it an invaluable tool in my practice. I only wish I had had it when I was a GP for 14 years!
    I am certainly better informed about nutrition than I was when my children were young, and confess to using the “no time” excuse for feeding them what I now recognize were less than optimal meals and snacks. I hope that when I become a grandmother I can assist them in providing better quality food to my future grandchildren and will “make” the time to do that, in other words make it a priority. I am a terrible procrasinator and that contributed as well to the slaphazard approach to feeding my little ones. (If I had made the trip to the grocery store in a more timely fashion, I would have spent way less time in the drivethrough line!) To my delight, I recently discovered that a world-renowned expert in procrastination is here in Alberta at the U of C, Pierce Steele, and his book is also a gift. I can’t help but speculate that there is a strong correlation between the many aspects of weight management, especially the desirable “organized eating,” and procrastination, and the latter definitely improves with applying the wisdom Dr. Steele has shared. Perhaps this can be adressed in prenatal classes?
    Finally, wondering if you have reviewed the 17 Day Diet book. I am being flooded with questions from patients and friends and your expertise would be very helpful in providing proper advice.

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  8. @Laine: “procrastination”

    Interesting that you bring up this issue, as procrastination, impulsiveness, and time management issues are typical features of attention deficit disorder, a problem that I have extensively blogged about before and we see a lot of in our clinic. Often – fixing ADD together with stress and time management counseling remarkably improves on both eating and activity behaviours in our patients.

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  9. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy the “no time” argument. It’s nothing more or less than another excuse. Make the time – it’s all about setting priorities and making “healthy eating” a priority for your family. You can’t eat more healthy meals because you’re too busy or you’re just too tired?? That’s a load of crap.

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  10. Jim, other mothers might be offended by your response but as a mother who is guilty of having used both of those excuse, I could not agree with you more. And the reality is that healthy meals do not need to be laborious to prepare; some of the family favourites are from an old Home Economics cookbook I have and they were delicious, easy, economical and definitely wholesome (and portion sizes from a book published in the 60’s quite a lot smaller than today’s!)

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  11. I assume from your comment, Jim, that you are the primary meal planner/kid chauffeur in your home and not your wife?

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  12. I found your post on Mother’s Experience of Feeding Their Families very interesting Dr. Sharma.

    I agree that educating parents about healthy eating, although important, is insufficient to really change behaviour. As a registered dietitian, with a great deal of confidence in the kitchen (oddly enough I attended the Cordon Bleu Cooking School!), I am employed fulltime (4 days a week) and with 4 mouths to feed (including myself) I struggle with feeding the family a tasty, nutritious menu plan. And I am not working 5 days a week! I have more time to plan and grocery shop than a lot of people!

    I would argue that the key barrier to healthy eating is not simply having far too few minutes in your day. Look at how much time we devote to work for instance! Our culture values it and we are rewarded for it financially. I’d be a millionnaire if I had a $ for the number of times people asked me why I wasn’t working 5 days a week!

    I believe this is a political and cultural issue. Mainstream economics ignores the unpaid work at home. If government accounted for the time that child-rearing (which includes meal planning of course) and “keeping house” (much of what has to do with meal prep…for one of many examples – keeping the fridge, stove, countertops clean/sanitary) takes parents, if they valued the impact of this unpaid work of parents on the nations health and rewarded it in a way that made it financially prudent (as too often this is what makes the world turn) and considered it when devising federal (tax cuts for stay at home parents), provincial (wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the days when stores were closed on one day a week!) and municipal initiatives (eg. like the authors suggested – more flexible work environments, school curriculums without gender specific stereotypes,..), time would not be a key barrier. Thinking up ways of making quick, tasty, nutritious meals to help the time strapped parent is helpful of course, but it’s a bandaid not a solution. As a nation we need to value the work and reward it however that may be, but in a way that encourages people to do it. I struggle away because I believe in it, but it’d be a heck of a lot easier if the nation was backing me with initiatives that supported, not hindered parents work at home!

    Food for thought J?!

    As always, I enjoy your posts and look forward to the next one.

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  13. @DebraSY: Yes, I am the primary meal planner in our household. I plan and prepare ALL of the meals for a family of two (plus the Bichon Frise) – that includes breakfast, lunches and dinners. Family of ten, you say? You just have to prepare more stuff! lol.

    Don’t get me wrong – I realize that planning and cooking healthy meals takes time and it’s not easy, but it’s one heck of a lot better than the alternative. It’s about making healthy eating and making healthy choices a PRIORITY in your life. Putting yourself first, for a change.

    Again, with sufficient planning, it is possible for us to make “healthy choices” eating “on the run” and eating out (yes, even eating out at fast food restaurants.)

    Is it a lot of fun? Does it seem fair? Heck no, but it’s certainly doable.

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  14. Laine, I think a huge part of the problem is mothers would be offended at Jim’s statement but fathers wouldn’t be. While Jim does appear to take an active role in his family’s nourishment, which is a good thing, most fathers don’t assume that it’s their job to care about that … leaving it on the mother. We will all be better off when fathers read that statement and say, “Wait a minute!” Although I think the time crunch might not be so bad when they do. 🙂

    At that, I tend to agree with him. My mother was EXTREMELY busy and worked from the time I was 6-ish onward. She and my dad went without many, many things they needed and almost everything they wanted. She was and remains hyperorganized and used many, many tips and tricks to stay focused. She’s way better at it than I am, and better than most C-level execs that I know. Weekly meal planning? You mean people DON’T do that? Coupon-cutting? Of course. Coping with picky kids? What parent doesn’t?

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  15. Very happy to see an article – about an article – that are both advocating the need for more family food responsibility by fathers (and children). I get very frustrated when reading articles / watching news reports that attribute the equal rights movement / women in the workplace as a primary cause for the rise in obesity because they almost always address this issue in an overly simplistic manner and leave the blame on the heads of women who work.

    It’s bad enough that women bear the burden of the Second Shift, but to bear the sole blame for this (and everything else that can go wrong with kids) alongside the implication of being selfish women and ALSO bad mothers – well, that’s just a slap in the face on top of insult on top of injury.

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