A look at family eating habits

How we eat has changed considerably over the past 30 years, and so has the food industry. What changes have taken place around the table and on our plates? What food marketing ploys should we watch out for, and how can we save money at the grocery store?


Family eating habits: what’s changed

Between when you were a kid and when you became a parent, much has changed in food and nutrition over the past 30 years. A look back can help us understand the present and work toward building a better future.

By Stéphanie Côté

Between when you were a kid and when you became a parent, much has changed in food and nutrition over the past 30 years. A look back can help us better understand the present and work toward building a better future.

Mealtime motivation

When you were little, your parents likely had a refrain or two that they’d use to get you to “clean your plate.” Here are a few that deserve to stay in the past!

“Just three more bites!”

Parents would do whatever it took to make their kids eat everything on their plates! Today, however, we know that it’s possible to develop unhealthy relationships with food. That’s why children shouldn’t be made to think that they should eat more than they want to make their parents happy or proud. “It’s a funny thing to ask of someone, isn’t it?” observes nutritionist Karine Gravel. “In the end, it has a negative impact on the child’s emotions.” It’s best to let your children decide when they are full, since they are the only ones who know how much their bodies can handle.

“No dessert until you’ve cleaned your plate.”

Who doesn’t remember hearing this as a child? It’s still a popular line today, even though more and more parents are recognizing that dessert should never be used as a reward. “By making dessert seem like even more of a treat, we give our kids the impression that the main course is an obstacle,” explains nutritionist Guylaine Guèvremont, coauthor of the book Manger, un jeu d’enfant (Turning mealtime into child’s play). In other words, the plan can backfire!

“Eat all your vegetables! They’re good for you.”

Did this kind of argument ever change your mind about a food you didn’t like when you were little? Chances are it won’t work on your child either. Kids are more likely to react favourably to new foods if introduced to them in a pressure-free setting where they can see adults enjoying that same food. “The child has to like it—end of story,” says Guèvremont. “Kids will eat their peas if you make them, but that’s only a short-term solution. Your role as a parent is to help your child become a good eater for the rest of their lives.”

With changes to family life come changes to eating habits

“What’s for dinner?”

Are you reminded of how often you must have asked your mom this same question whenever you hear these words? Now that achieving a work-family balance is more difficult than ever, preparing regular meals is a challenge unto itself! Unfortunately, there are no miracle solutions. The key is meal planning.

According to nutritionist Hélène Laurendeau, preparing your menu for the week shouldn’t be thought of as a time-consuming chore. Parents who are short on time actually stand to gain from putting more effort into planning their meals. “It’s also better for your health,” adds Laurendeau.

More variety, but also more processed foods

Meat, potatoes, and a vegetable (from a can, no less). Does this sound like a lot of your childhood dinners? It’s safe to say that having variety in our weekday menus wasn’t always as important as it is today.

Making even the simplest home-cooked meals is better than buying ready-made options.

Many parents these days go to great pains to add variety to their meals, with no shortage of cooking shows and online recipes from which to draw inspiration. Nonetheless, when time is scarce, they often turn immediately to ready-made meals and processed ingredients—both of which, Laurendeau laments, are becoming increasingly common at the grocery store.

“The food industry doesn’t want us to cook because they want to sell us their solutions,” she explains. “The problem is that they’re not making it any easier to eat healthy. That’s why we need to get back to simple but real food.”

For Laurendeau, having an omelette, a bowl of pasta with cheese and tomatoes, or even peanut butter on toast beats eating ready-made meals. What’s more, cooking at home is far more economical than buying prepared dishes.

A lack of knowledge

Back in the 1980s, kiwi fruit were considered exotic; nowadays, they’re an everyday food. Children now have access to a much wider range of foods than we did at their age. However, they are also exposed to far more processed foods than farm-grown products. The result is a lack of knowledge about food, as many studies have shown.

“We should be teaching kids about where basic foods come from, how they’re made, and what they look like,” says Laurendeau. What does a lettuce plant look like? Where does cheese come from? What does cereal look like before ending up in the boxes you see at the grocery store? These are all great discussions to have around the table!

Family meals on the decline

Thirty years ago, we rarely heard about how important is was to eat as a family. We ate together, period! It was a fact of life. Nathalie Lachance, a doctoral student in sociology at UQAM, points out that today, much is made of topics such as eating enough vegetables or protecting the environment, yet family meals get pushed aside.

Modern lifestyles tend to make things complicated, but parents should remember that sitting down at the table with their child has many benefits. “It reinforces the sense of being part of the family and helps children build their identities,” Lachance explains. “A family needs to spend time being a family in order to raise well-adjusted kids.”

The right age for introducing new foods
The Canadian Paediatric Society currently recommends that complementary feeding start at the age of six months. Your mother may have told you that you were eating purées by the time you were two months old; this was, in fact, common at the time. By the 1970s, however, experts had learned that this practice wasn’t best for the baby. Nutritionist Louise Lambert-Lagacé notes that many moms continued to introduce new foods after just two or three months “either because they grew impatient or because they were following the advice of certain doctors.” She sets the record straight in her book Comment nourrir son enfant (How to feed your child), published in 1974.

Screens: An unwelcome addition to the table

Households in the 1980s often had just one television set, which was most likely to be found in the living room. Today, we are surrounded by screens—computers, cell phones, tablets—and they follow us wherever we go.

“Screens have become members of the family with their own seat at the table,” says Marie Marquis, a full professor in the department of nutrition at the Université de Montréal. “They’re the reason why there’s less talk at dinnertime.” The trouble is, talking is the whole point of sitting down to a family meal.

Having screens at the table is also bad for your health. Kids who eat in front of a screen become so distracted that they’re no longer aware of what they’re eating. “Screens are making kids eat more and move less, which leads obesity,” explains nutritionist Myriam Gehami, coauthor of the book J’aime pas ça! J’en veux encore! (I don’t like this! I want more of that!).

Changes you can see

Bigger serving sizes

Servings are more than 35 per cent bigger than they were 50 years ago! More food on the plate means more food in your stomach. Worse still, since people are cooking less often, they are consuming more processed foods from grocery stores and restaurants. These options also happen to come with bigger serving sizes.

Further reading (in French only): “Poids des tout-petits: faut-il s’en inquiéter?” (Infant weight: Should you be worried?)

“People have gotten used to eating larger portions because their frames of reference have completely changed,” says Corinne Voyer, the director of Coalition Poids. Knowing what an actual serving looks like can help you avoid overeating. For children, for example, a serving of meat should measure about the size of the palm of their hand and make up no more than onethird of the food on their plate.

A rise in weight problems

“Life expectancy normally increases from one generation to the next,” says Amandine Moukarzel, a nutritionist at the Pediatric Centre of Cardiovascular Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation (CIRCUIT) of the Sainte-Justine University Health Centre (CHU Sainte-Justine). “But for the first time, we’re seeing it decrease. Children today may have a lower life expectancy than their parents.” Obesity and related health problems are among the main reasons for this decline.

Epidemiologist and nutritionist Michel Lucas cites another troubling statistic: Between 1978 and 1979, five per cent of Canadian youth between the ages of 3 and 19 were obese. Between 2009 and 2013, that figure rose to 13 per cent.

According to Lucas, the most harmful foods are juices and sugary drinks. He believes that we should be doing more to get kids into the habit of drinking water. The problem, as he explains, isn’t just what people are eating, but also what they are eating less of, such as fruits and vegetables. “Healthy eating has to become normal and enjoyable,” he says.

“It’s not good for you!”

In the 1980s, people weren’t especially concerned about nutrition. We have since become better informed, and many parents now forbid their children from eating foods considered bad.

From time to time, it’s actually okay to let your child eat less nutritious foods. An outright ban can make the forbidden foods all the more tempting. “A child could develop the same type of complex about certain foods as someone on a diet might have,” warns Gravel.

Sneaky marketing used by grocery stores

Grocery stores use various strategies to tempt shoppers, even in the produce section. These techniques are known as food marketing.

By Naître et grandir staff

Our diets have changed considerably over the past 30 years, and so has the food industry. Grocery stores now have thousands of products to choose from and use various strategies to tempt shoppers, even in the produce section. These techniques are known as food marketing.

What’s more, every aspect—from smells and colours to free samples and product displays—is designed to make you buy more. Keep these food marketing strategies in mind so that you don’t fall into the trap.

Shopping carts

Marketing ploys come into play from the moment you set foot in the store. You’ve probably noticed that shopping carts have gotten bigger over the years. The main reason, of course, is to give you more space for your items. At the same time, a roomier cart can make you feel as though you aren’t buying enough if it isn’t completely full.

Next to these supersize carts, you’ll often see miniature versions for kids. Adorable? Absolutely. But their real purpose is to encourage your little ones to fill them with whatever they please. Don’t be surprised if your child reaches for products that have colourful packaging or feature their favourite cartoon characters.

A fresh start

Your trips to the grocery store almost certainly begin in the fruit and vegetable section, since in most cases it’s the first section in the store. The idea is that—after crossing the healthy foods off your list—you might feel less guilty about giving into desserts, chips, or pizza in the other aisles.

Not far from the fresh produce, you’ll often find “made-in-store” products, such as BBQ chicken, salads, and baked goods—a mouthwatering bouquet of aromas designed to get your stomach growling! Stores have begun drawing more and more attention to this section, as ready-made meals are increasingly in demand among today’s consumers.

The aisles

Dairy products, eggs, and other staples tend to be found at the back or sides of the store. By making it necessary to walk through all of the aisles to find them, the store is able to draw your attention to more promotions. As a result, there’s a good chance you’ll be tempted to fill your basket with items that you don’t necessarily need.

In the aisles, the products that the store wants you to buy are placed at eye level: lower at the start and end of the aisle and higher in the middle. Always scan both high and low along the full length of the shelves to make the wisest choice. Also, keep in mind that products that target kids are placed on the shelves where they will see them when seated in the shopping cart.


Our eyes are drawn to discount prices. According to the magazine Protégez-Vous, grocery stores typically offer savings of 10 to 30 per cent, though you will also come across bigger markdowns. Always ask yourself whether you’re really saving money—especially with bundle discounts such as “3 for $5” deals.

Free samples are another tactic designed to tantalize your senses and make you buy more.

Many products go on sale on a regular basis, so it’s often a good idea to wait before buying them. Be careful not to fall for items displayed at the ends of aisles; companies pay to have their products featured in these spots, so what looks like a deal may not be one at all.

At the checkout counter, you’ll find even more products aimed at inspiring last-minute impulse purchases.

Right to the end, the goal is to make your visit an enjoyable experience. After all, the happier you are, the longer you’ll stay and the more you’ll buy!

Appealing to kids
According to Coalition Poids, kids influence more than 40 per cent of a family’s purchases. This amount of sway makes them a prime target at the grocery store. You might come across food packaging, for example, that features cartoon characters as a way to grab children’s attention. In Quebec, this type of strategy is an exception to the provincial law against advertising directed at children under 13. However, a nationwide bill was introduced to ban the use of food marketing aimed at children.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2017
Research and writing:  Stéphanie Côté, nutritionist and Naître et grandir staff
Scientific review:
Jordan Lebel, professor of food marketing, Concordia University


Photos : (in order) Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/Paul Bradbury, GettyImages/Juanmonino, Maude Chauvin, Radio-Canada, Jocelyn Michel, Radio-Canada, L’Anarchie culinaire, Georges Dutil, Maude Chauvin

15 expert tips for saving on groceries

Clipping coupons and making grocery lists is a good place to start if you want to save money and avoid unnecessary food expenses. Here are a few more expert tips to help you shrink your grocery bill.

Use your phone to take a photo of the inside of your fridge.

Once you’re at the store, this will help keep you focused on getting only what you came for. If you find yourself wondering whether you’re running low on mayonnaise or yogurt, for example, you’ll have the answer at your fingertips. No more buying things you don’t actually need.

Alexandre Diaz
Co-host of Cuisine futée, parents pressés

Pay attention to all of the information on shelf labels.

Don’t just look at the overall price. You’ll often find a product’s price by weight—usually per 100 g or 100 ml—written in fine print on the shelf label. For products that come in different sizes, it’s the best way to compare prices and save money.

Martine Gingras
Author of the blog Banlieusardises

Beware of red labels.

Check the original price under discount labels to see whether you’re actually getting a deal or just saving a few cents (or nothing at all). Colourful labels often serve no other purpose than to grab your attention. You should also be careful with promotions along the lines of “2 for $5.” These sound like bargains but are really just a scheme to get you to buy more. You’ll very often find that the price per unit is simply half the bundled total ($2.50 in the previous example).

Johane Despins
Co-host of L’Épicerie

Stay away from foods that have already been sliced, peeled, or grated for you.

Instead of grabbing ready-to-eat baby carrots or pre-sliced fruit, buy your fruits and vegetables whole and prepare them yourself. You can also buy blocks of cheese and grate it at home. It’s easy to do and you’ll save money—prepared foods are more expensive and often of lower quality.

Hélène Laurendeau
Nutritionist, author, and commentator

Stretch your proteins.

Proteins (meat and fish in particular) tend to put the biggest dent in our grocery bills. Who can afford cooking up a hearty beef dish for four every week? You can! The trick is to “stretch” your proteins by combining them with other ingredients. One steak, for example, isn’t enough to feed an entire family, but it is when you serve it in a vegetable filled Asian noodle soup. You could also turn a pound of fish into a lasagna with layers of vegetables and béchamel sauce.

Ricardo Larrivée
Chef, TV host, and cookbook author

Remember that waste is the biggest drain on your budget.

Some households throw away hundreds of dollars in food every year. Don’t buy something just because it’s on sale—you haven’t saved a penny if it winds up in the trash! Aim to buy vegetables that you can incorporate into more than one dish. Learning to eyeball exactly how much you need is the ultimate secret to reducing waste.

Bernard Lavallée
Author of the blog Le nutritionniste urbain

Take only as much as you need.

In the produce section, for example, you can split up a large bag of grapes or a bunch of bananas to take only as much as you need. It can also be cheaper to bag your own beans or potatoes instead of buying them in packaged form. At the meat counter, if the available cuts are too large, ask one of the staff to prepare a smaller portion for you.

Denis Gagné
Co-host of L’Épicerie

Bring cash and leave your cards at home.

Using store flyers when making your grocery list, writing down the name and price of each item, and calculating the total is the best way to stay on budget. Bring only the amount you need to the store will help you avoid overspending.

Olga Cherezova
Budget advisor at ACEF de l’Est de Montréal

Don’t rule out having eggs for lunch and dinner.

Eggs are as versatile as they come and perfect for last-minute meal ideas. Omelettes, frittatas, quiches, burritos—countless simple and inexpensive dishes feature eggs. They also happen to be a great source of protein.

Bob le Chef
Chef, commentator, and cookbook author

Choose milk containers wisely and don’t buy bottled water.

Buy regular milk in regular containers to take advantage of regulated prices. Milk that has been microfiltered, flavoured, or packaged in a twist-cap container is more expensive. Bottled water is another unnecessary expense. Unless a public issue has been identified, tap water is safe to drink. Moreover, bottled water is often nothing but bottled tap water. You end up paying more in addition to polluting the planet.

Josée di Tomasso
Project manager at the Centre d’entraide Racine-Lavoie in Saint-Eustache

Create a personal list of lowest prices.

Make a list of the products you buy often and how much they cost when they’re on sale. The next time there’s a discount on a product you want, you’ll be able to tell at a glance whether or not it’s a good deal.

Pierre-François Legendre
Actor and spokesperson for the Fondation OLO

Give store brands a chance.

Store-brand products are less expensive than brand-name equivalents, because you aren’t paying for marketing. They’re often of equal quality and are sometimes even a step up in terms of nutritional content. Chefs use them too!

Nathalie Côté
Editor-in-chief of the website Économies et cie

Be flexible.

Adapt your recipes to incorporate ingredients that are more affordable. For example, you could swap out chicken breasts for drumsticks, take home the cheaper option when trying to decide between trout and salmon, or opt for broccoli instead of snow peas. Your final dish will be just as delicious! Remember to also buy what’s in season. Lastly, before heading to the checkout counter, look over the items in your cart. Ask yourself if you really need everything and if fresh ingredients outnumber any processed products. Put back or replace any items as you see fit. It doesn’t take long and could end up saving you a few bucks.

Geneviève O’Gleman
Nutritionist and co host of Cuisine futée, parents pressés

Save on meat.”

Think like a butcher! It’s cheaper to buy bone in chicken thighs and remove the bones at home, or to carve your own beef cubes from a cut of chuck roast. Another great way to save money on meat? Buy less! Cook up your meat with lentils, black beans, or chickpeas—or simply opt for meatless dishes.

Geneviève Doray
Director of Naître et Grandir

Ask for a raincheck.

Stores are required to have a sufficient stock of any item that is on sale. If you arrive and are met with an empty shelf, ask for a raincheck at the checkout counter. This coupon will grant you the same discount on the item at your next visit, even if the promotion has already ended.

Suzanne Lepage
Nutritionist at the Dispensaire diététique de Montréal

Naitre et grandir.com

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2017
Research and writing: Stéphanie Côté, nutritionist


Photos: Maude Chauvin, Radio-Canada, Jocelyn Michel, Radio-Canada, L'Anarchie culinaire, Georges Dutil, Maude Chauvin