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