Food and Behaviour Research

Donate Log In

16 October 2014 - The Conversation - Children know family budgets dictate how healthy their food is

Hannah Fairbrother, Lecturer in Child and Family Health and Wellbeing at University of Sheffield

From celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Money Saving Meals to blogging mum Jack Monroe’s 100 Delicious Budget Recipes to the NHS Eat4Cheap campaign, eating well on a budget is now a national pastime.

But research from across the developed world consistently shows that the poorer you are, the worse your diet is likely to be. This has been linked to the high cost of nutrient-rich foods (lean meat, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables) and low cost of nutrient-poor foods (refined grains, added sugars and added fats). This is backed up by studies exploring parents' perspectives of negotiating tight food budgets. But what do children think?

Despite the fact that much of the current preoccupation around healthy eating focuses on children’s diets, particularly those of poorer children, we know very little about their views on how their family finances impact how healthy they eat.

This contrasts with a growing body of research which demonstrates that children actively make sense of and participate in health-related behaviours. In fact, recent research has shown that health interventions that resonate with children’s own views are more effective.

My own research has shown that children are acutely aware of how family finances shape the food that they eat. I worked with nine and ten-year-old children from two different areas, one affluent and one poorer area, in the North of England.

Children from both areas proposed many strategies to facilitate eating healthily on a budget, some of which reflected what happened in their own families. They talked about choosing the supermarket or shopping day based on cost and special offers, “growing your own” and buying local, seasonal produce.

But the reality played out very differently in the two contexts. The poorer children talked about having to travel to the market for cheap fruit, shopping at a local shop where bills could be paid at a later date and even relying on leftovers from a nearby greengrocers where a family friend worked. They made frequent, spontaneous references to financial constraints and the importance of cost. In contrast, the more affluent children tended only to mention prices or budgets when asked.