Stretched finances and time, stress, tiredness and the challenge of juggling family members’ differing tastes are among the many influences on Māori parents’ food choices for their children, new research shows.

The study, led by Massey University’s Professor Marewa Glover as part of the A Better Start National Science Challenge research team, is part of a larger project that explores how New Zealand parents perceive children’s weight, and facilitators of healthy growth in young children.

The aim of the study, recently published in Nutrients, was to explore the views of Māori parents and other caregivers on the importance of weight to health, and the barriers to healthy weight in children aged six months to five years. Researchers were particularly interested in how decisions are made around providing healthier food and drink.

In-depth information was collected in focus groups with 37 mostly urban parents and other caregivers in Auckland and Whangarei. Most of the participants identified as Māori, or of dual Māori and other ethnicities (87 percent), and most (89 percent) were women.

“If we are going to partner with whānau and communities to support them giving children healthier food, then we first need to understand parents’ and other caregivers’ beliefs about food and its relationship to weight and health, and what food they are already buying and cooking,” says Professor Marewa Glover.

Professor Glover developed a model of a kete to show the factors influencing food provision aimed towards having happy children, which included access to food by the type of food available and this was moderated by the cost of food.

Not enough money was an overriding factor for parents, as well as lack of time, tiredness, stress, the perceived higher cost of healthy food, the number of people to feed, and their food preferences. Other factors included beliefs about healthy food, cultural values relating to food selection, serving and eating. Participants talked about being brought up to finish your plate even if you were full.

“The parents reported that they didn’t have convenient access to affordable fruit and vegetables. They explained how they could make their money go further and feed more people if they bought takeaway food. Also, takeaway food saved them time.”

All of the focus groups agreed that unhealthy foods cost a lot less than healthier foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Some also expressed a desire for more education about nutrition and how to cook, especially novel foods like quinoa.

The participants in the study did not think that childhood obesity was a high-priority. For them the happiness of their child was the more important focus. They did, however, think that more education about how to grow vegetables, how to plan and cook cheaper meals would be useful for parents of young children.

Another theme that emerged were the pressures on parents to give children ‘treats’, or they complained that other people fed the children ‘bad foods’ even if the parents were trying to restrict their child’s consumption of sugary drinks and ‘junk’ food.

For some families, the cost of electricity was another barrier to providing healthier foods because this expense took money away from the food budget or families couldn’t afford to run appliances needed for cooking. Some participants acknowledged and appreciated being able to access food parcels from charities, but they said the quality was varied. The researchers suggest that it would be useful to provide guidelines to aid agencies, churches and supermarkets on how to ensure healthier quality food is donated to community food pantries and foodbanks.

“The research concluded that there are many complex barriers to healthier eating that influence the food provision decisions made on a daily basis by Māori parents,” says Professor Glover.

“It is essential that healthier food interventions adopt a holistic approach that is culturally appropriate, and gives adequate consideration to the complex reality of food provisioning that is experienced by families,” she said.

Professor Wayne Cutfield, Director of A Better Start and a professor of paediatric endocrinology at the Liggins Institute, was a co-researcher on the study. “This research is particularly important for our Challenge as we search for solutions to the rising numbers of young children in New Zealand, and especially Māori children, who are affected by increased weight and related health issues,” he says.

Nutrients 2019, 11(5), 994; https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11050994