3.2. Overview of Themes
Through thematic analysis of the focus group transcripts, seven themes were constructed: (1) “How we learned to cook”; (2) “Who’s the boss?”; (3) “Children in the way”; (4) “Keep kids out”; (5) “Involvement means eating”; (6) “Intentions versus reality”; and (7) “Kids’ interest”.
The culture of children being present in the kitchen appeared to revolve around the mother–child dynamic, with an underlying shift in this dynamic, from mothers being in control in previous generations to currently the child dictating meal choice. This shift appeared in two themes, “How we learned to cook” and “Who’s the boss?”, as described below.
How we learned to cook. Here, participants discussed how they were present in the kitchen from a young age and how they learnt to cook from their mothers.
“When I was younger mum always had us in the kitchen and teaching us how to cook and that.”
The majority of participants claimed that they had to help with the dinner. There was no choice and it was what was expected of them and part of their family dynamics.
“When we were younger my mum was out working an awful lot and I was minding the younger ones… I just remember cooking at a really young age...”
“Oh yeah I’d have done that stand on the chair [because] you couldn’t reach.”
Some of the mothers noted that in some instances they had to assume the role as meal preparer in its entirety for their families. This is a sharp contrast to current practices where only two mothers of the 141 involved in the focus groups mentioned their older children helping with every day meal preparation. Thus, the culture of children helping in the kitchen and “doing jobs” in the kitchen is a rarity.
Who’s the boss? This theme highlights how the power of food choice has shifted to the child. This shift has put extra pressure and stress on the mother and has changed the ‘cooking a meal’ experience as well as what preparing a meal actually entails. Mothers claim that children dictate what type of food is prepared by being fussy eaters or liking different textures or by how food is eaten (for example with their hands).
“We all have different dinners in our house. So, because my wee (small/young) boy is like three so he’s like ‘I don’t like that, I don’t like that’ and my wee girl she would rather sit with like salads, like she just loves all that so it’s really difficult in my house….My wee girl hates mince so like, you know your spag bol (spaghetti Bolognese) that you would love really quick or like cottage pie or anything like that she’s ‘no’ so I know she’s not going to eat it… There’s always one with something different in my house.”
In every focus group, it was mentioned that the participants cook to cater to their children’s wants and needs, “What the wee ones [the children] want to eat”
(NI, FG 8). Sometimes they are unaware of this level of control, and believe that they are making “compromises”, although still preparing what the child wants.
“[There] might be something that you want to cook but you know they’re not going to eat it so you just have [to] compromise and go with what you know is going to be eaten as well.”
If mothers do not want to eat what their children are eating, they make multiple dinners to avoid arguments, tantrums or revolt. To cope with the demand of having to make multiple dishes, some participants resorted to the use of convenience products instead of deciding what is to be eaten.
From these added stresses and pressures in the kitchen, two negative themes arose, “Children in the way” and “Keep kids out” with over three quarters of the focus groups having discussed children being in the way of their cooking and not wanting the children in the kitchen when they are cooking.
Children in the way. This strongly presented theme revolves around the impact of having children present in the kitchen on the mother’s current cooking practices. It highlights how children, “little tigers”, are in the way when mothers are trying to prepare a meal, hanging on to the mothers or shouting and pulling at them.
“I have 2 kids running about pulling me grabbing me mummy, mummy, mummy…then babies looking fed and it’s just madness.”
Some of the mothers mentioned that they would like a “babysitter
” to occupy the children so that the participants were able to cook a meal. When children have disabilities requiring extra time or can have problems with food, this results in less time for the mother to cook. When faced with these situations, mothers tend to cope by cooking quickly, and by taking shortcuts, such as using convenience products, or by cooking food when the children are out of the way in school or in another room playing.
“Like I have 5 kids fluttering around and you just don’t have time to be standing with a flipping wooden spoon…”
Keep kids out. This theme revolves around what stops mothers having their kids in the kitchen and involving them in the cooking process. The participants stated that they are too busy to deal with the mess children create in the kitchen as at times children can leave the kitchen looking like a “bomb site”.
“See because they’ll just create such a mess.”
Along with the potential mess of letting the children in the kitchen, participants also noted concerns over the safety of having children in the kitchen.
“Do you not be worried about them using a baker [oven] and things at that age?”
“Well I don’t let my 4 year old use the cooker.”
“Oh no obviously.”
“The 13 year old she says yeah they have to use the cooker in school and stuff so.”
“Oh I see now aye it just sounds really young still doesn’t it though.”
While not as prevalent, there were also positive themes relating to the transference of skills from the mother to the child—“Involvement means eating” and “Intentions versus reality”. The themes were mentioned multiple times within a smaller number of focus group discussions. While some transference of skills to the child occurring may happen as a result of these themes, the skill level being transferred may not occur frequently, not happen in all situations, and the type of skills transferred may not be optimal for everyday living.
Involvement means eating. The “involvement means eating and trying foods” theme highlights the participants’ perceptions about their children eating different types of food or food they have previously refused when they are involved in the preparation of the food.
“My wee girl doesn’t like vegetables or anything I think 2 or 3 weeks ago I got her to help me make lasagne, she loves pasta. I got her to help me make it and oh my god there was a clear plate so she loved it, she doesn’t like peas or carrots or courgettes (zucchinis) or onions or anything like that everything in and then she ate it all, no questions asked.”
Some of the participants felt that children experiencing the food ingredients in the kitchen rather than it being presented to them as a complete dish to eat removes the fear of the unknown.
“Whereas if she was actually helping to make (dinner)… She’ll eat anything if she kind of knows what it is but whenever they don’t seem to know what it is they are just a bit wary of it.”
Intentions versus reality. This theme addresses the concept of cooking with children. Mothers in general expressed a desire for their children to be able to cook to help them in their future.
“Yeah and you want them to be able to know how to cook, so that when they hit 18 they wouldn’t just live on little packets of you know pasta or takeaway, that they have some idea, they can come in they can make a Spaghetti Bolognese or they can do the basics.”
However, when mothers discuss instances of when they cook with their children they mention baking, which is seen as a fun activity or random dishes that children pick to cook rather than everyday dishes that form their diet.
“My little one loves to bake and stir and she’ll make pizza for her friends, you know, she loves doing stuff like that and all sorts of nonsense.”
Participants also referred to the occasional instances where they had the children make the meal with them, to try and encourage them to eat the food, as discussed in the previous theme. In addition, the participants mentioned eating food they do not like that children have prepared to encourage the children to cook.
In the final theme, participants discussed their child’s interest or stated that they were not interested in cooking. It was unclear whether children showed an interest in cooking due to greater cooking exposure or whether children were naturally interested. This theme is detailed below.
Kids’ “interest” in cooking. This theme was present in eight of the 16 focus groups, however, not all instances were positive, as some reported that their children had no interest in cooking.
“(Cooking) bores my 10 year old, (they’re) not interested.”
Some mothers commented on their children’s interest in cooking and that they wanted to cook and learn to cook at home or in home economics.
“Well he’s doing home economics and all in school and he loves to cook yeah.”
Some participants proposed that the child’s interest in cooking arises as a way of gaining a sense of independence instead of just having their ‘dinner set down in front of them’ and that they gained a sense of pride and achievement.