An Exploration of Mothers’ Personal Experience with Food and Meal Preparation,and the Meaning within the Family Environment

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Baillie, Heather
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Food choices are complex and multi-factorial. The environment in which one lives and grows plays an important role. As the culture and social norms evolve, changes are created in food habits. In particular, significant changes such as the increase in convenience foods and the increase in working mothers have had important impacts on the family meal. Studies have shown both the benefits of preparing foods at home and eating together as a family. The consequences of regularly eating foods prepared outside the home are thought to contribute to Canada’s increased obesity problem. Within the family, women have traditionally performed many roles with meal preparation. Work and family roles may conflict and new challenges may arise when both parents are in paid employment. Researchers have speculated that this has contributed to the increase in convenience foods. A qualitative design was used with in-depth face-to-face interviews. Participants were recruited through convenience sampling. They were mothers of children who attended a cooking class program. There were ten interviews conducted; two pilot, one dropped out, leaving seven final interviews. Interviews were held during the summer of 2008. They were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. The research aimed to explore mothers’ experiences with food and meal preparation, to identify the meaning she ascribes to her experiences and challenges that exist in preparing a homemade family meal. MaxQDA software was used to code data and look for developing themes. The approach taken to examine the interviews was a phenomenological approach to understand the behaviours of the mothers. The social ecological theory was used to analyze and interpret the findings concerning the environmental influences and connections to the mother’s behaviour. Three main themes were identified: Constructs of the Meal, The Mother’s Roles, and Food Choice Influences. The Constructs of the Meal revolves around how the mother was motivated to make the meal happen, important processes she wanted carried out, and purposes associated with the meal, such as connections she wanted to make with her family members through sharing the meal. The Mother’s Roles identifies her own and others meal preparation duties (the roles she played within the family structure and outwards), experiences from her past, challenges that she had revealed and her thoughts about children learning food skills. Food Choice Influences discusses how certain factors can impact how she chooses foods and meals for her family, such as family food preferences, health, costs and the convenience of some foods. These findings capture the complexity that is involved in preparing a family meal; concerns for health, price, preference, tastes and timing can be counter-intuitive to each other. The task of providing a pleasing, nutritious meal can be very stressful and requires time for planning and preparing. Interviewed women wanted additional support from their husbands and often struggled with ideas of what to serve. Messages, from health professionals and others who work with families, that encourage family home-cooked meals may benefit the family nutritionally and socially. Families require extra support to prepare foods at home. Support could be given through sharing quick but healthy dinner ideas and educating families about the benefits of involving their children in the meal preparation process. Families should be encouraged to eat together. If employers can understand their ability to support families by allowing flexible work schedules, perhaps working mothers can flex their schedule around meal time. The evening meal emerges as the most important meal for connecting and sharing as a family. For those who work closely with families, understanding the challenges that may exist around meal preparation for families is relevant and helps to guide families in making appropriate food choices. Support to develop cooking skills, including preparing foods ahead and planning techniques are other ways to make food preparation easier. These women felt it was important for their children to develop food skills, and therefore having facilities and individuals who can teach cooking programs to children is another form of supporting families through a social environment. The cooking program their children attended was funded through the government; this could be a means of providing the opportunity for children to learn food skills without financial reservation.