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date: 18 April 2024

Social and Biocultural Dimensions of Children’s Foodfree

Social and Biocultural Dimensions of Children’s Foodfree

  • Tina MoffatTina MoffatDepartment of Anthropology, McMaster University


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Food Studies. Please check back later for the full article.

Children’s food cannot be defined without historical and cultural context. Apart from breastmilk, infant formula, and prepared weaning foods, “children’s food” did not exist until the early 20th century with the rise of industrialized food. Although children with rapid growth and development need, on average, more nutrients per volume compared to adults, they do not require special foods per se. At the beginning of the 20th century, with nutrition sciences’ discovery of vitamins and rampant malnutrition among the poor, food manufacturers convinced parents they should feed their children supplements in the form of foods such as cod liver oil and yeast cakes. This later evolved into the marketing of foods like breakfast cereals—highly palatable, sugar-sweetened food products that simultaneously had a halo of health due to their nutrient fortification. The rise in child obesity in the 2000s prompted attention to unhealthy food products and advertising that marketed them specifically to children. Although well established in the field of public health, social sciences’ interest in children’s food did not begin until the 1990s with the broader recognition that studies of children were largely absent. It was about this time that food studies began to address the social, cultural, and economic dimensions of children’s food in a globalizing world.

Despite the shift, to date, there are surprisingly few studies of cross-cultural and social dimensions of children’s food. In the works that do exist, researchers explore the effects of specific economic contexts such as the one-child policy in China, the influence of French and American cultures on caregiver attitudes to children’s food, and how nourishment and care are influenced by neoliberal policies. School food and the state’s involvement have received more attention with several historical accounts of the US National School Food Program and case studies of global school food programs. More common is research on child food insecurity, driven by the continuing urgency of this problem into the 21st century. This field is still dominated, however, by global health studies; there remains a dearth of social studies of the lived experiences of food insecurity from children’s perspectives. This may be due to the challenges of doing research with children who can be difficult to engage, in part because of their definition as vulnerable persons. While there are barriers to doing research with children about children’s food, it is an emerging field with both academic and applied benefits.


  • Food and the Humanities