To understand how families eat, consider what food means to parents


by Priya Fielding-Singh

Parents want what is best for their kids. Under what circumstances might that mean giving them Cheetos?

Consider two mothers.

Jane is an upper-middle class mother. Her son, Charlie, is constantly asking her for Cheetos. Jane thinks Cheetos are unhealthy, so she goes out of her way to go to Whole Foods to buy their hydrogenated-oil-free alternative. Charlie doesn’t find them quite as salty and delicious, but Jane feels good about teaching Charlie that his preferences need to be balanced with health considerations.

Across town, Paula, a low-income mother, is facing the same request from her son, James. James also loves Cheetos. Although Paula knows that she is short on the cable bill this month, she also knows that the change in her pocket won’t cover the bill anyway. So she puts that money toward buying James his snack of choice. Paula doesn’t see Cheetos as the healthiest option, but she feels happy about being able to give James exactly what he asked her for.

In many ways, Jane and Paula are alike. They both want their teenage sons to be healthy and happy. They both view feeding their kids as a way of expressing care and being a good mother. But how they feed their kids differs, with Jane’s approach emphasizing self-restraint and Paula’s emphasizing gratification. This discrepancy in approaches is influenced by their access to money and grocery stores; but it is also fundamentally shaped by the class-inflected symbolic meanings that parents like Paula and Jane attach to food.

These symbolic meanings are the focus of my recent study. Through interviews with 160 parents and adolescents and observations of families across socioeconomic status (SES), I found that parents’ different feeding strategies in part reflected the different symbolic meanings that food held for them.

While responsible caregiving for poor parents meant honoring their children’s requests, responsible caregiving for affluent parents often meant denying them.

Most parents I spoke with cared about their adolescents’ diets and dietary health: they wanted their kid to eat fruits and vegetables and avoid products like soda and fast food.

At the same time, parents faced ongoing pressures from their adolescents to buy them the latter. As one upper-middle class mother told me about her teenagers: “They always want junk. I mean, they really ask for a lot of it.”

But parents across socioeconomic statuses differed in how they navigated these pressures.

While 96 percent of the affluent families in my sample reported that they regularly denied their adolescents’ junk food requests for health reasons, just 13 percent of low-income families said the same. When funds were available, low-income parents told me that they tried to oblige their adolescents’ requests, healthy or unhealthy. Some of these parents even reported that they spent more on food just to fulfill their children’s dietary desires.

So why did affluent parents consistently deny adolescents foods they could easily afford while poor parents stretched their dollars to meet these requests?

For low-income parents, daily life in poverty stripped them of opportunities to say “yes” to their adolescents’ requests, be it a new pair of shoes or a trip to Disneyland. Food could be an important exception: low-SES parents often had enough money to oblige adolescents’ inexpensive food requests. A bag of Cheetos was almost always within financial reach.

Thus, parents obliged adolescents’ wishes to compensate for scarcity in other domains. Doing so not only emotionally satisfied their children; critically, it also gave parents a sense of worth and competence as caregivers in a context where those feelings were constantly in jeopardy.

Among affluent parents, food took on a different, but similarly potent, meaning. These parents derived a sense of worth as caregivers in curtailing – rather than obliging – adolescents’ unhealthy dietary desires. Raising their adolescents in contexts of abundance, food offered these parents an ongoing medium for teaching restraint and delayed gratification.

Thus, these parents regularly denied adolescents’ requests in an effort to cultivate their palates for the “right” foods and signal to themselves and to others that they were transmitting particular values.

It is important to incorporate these symbolic meanings into our understanding of dietary disparities. Whereas many high-SES parents provision in an environment of abundance, security, and stability, low-SES parents strive to provide in the face of scarcity, uncertainty, and instability.

Within these vastly different contexts, food takes on vastly different meanings. The poor parents I spoke with said “yes” to their kids out of a deep desire to care and provide for them amidst constrained material circumstances, not out of disregard or a devaluation of their health. Similarly, the affluent parents I met denied their adolescents’ food requests in an earnest effort to instill in them healthy lifelong habits, not to deprive them.

My findings suggest a reframing of how parenting strategies across the socioeconomic spectrum are publically evaluated. The diets and health of adolescents are often framed through paradigms of failure and blame of the parents. The image of a parent buying their child a soda may invoke judgment and disapproval. But buying a soda for your child can be a genuine act of care and concern when understood within a broader context of parenting and providing.

When we view parents as solely responsible for children’s diets, we incorrectly place the consequences of larger, systemic inequalities on the backs of caregivers. We ignore the overarching inequalities that directly shape the conditions within which parents raise and provide for their children.

If we are to effectively and empathetically address dietary health across the socioeconomic spectrum, we must acknowledge and address the consequences of these conditions for parents’ abilities to provide – physically and emotionally – for their children.

Priya Fielding-Singh is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Stanford University. This article summarizes findings from “A Taste of Inequality: Food’s Symbolic Value across the Socioeconomic Spectrum” in Sociological Science.




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