A look at family eating habits

Families’ diets have changed considerably over the last 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 you watch out for, and how can you save money at the grocery store?


Family eating habits: What’s changed

Much has changed in food and nutrition over the last 30 years as you’ve gone from being a kid to having kids of your own. Let’s take a look back to better understand the present and perhaps even build a better future.

By Stéphanie Côté, nutritionist

Much has changed in food and nutrition over the last 30 years as you’ve gone from being a kid to having kids of your own. Let’s take a look back to better understand the present and perhaps even build a better future.

Mealtime motivation

When you were little, your parents likely had a line or two that they’d use to get you to eat all your food. Here are a few that deserve to stay in the past!

“Just three more bites!”

Parents used to do whatever it took to make their kids eat everything on their plates. Today, of course, we know that it’s possible to develop unhealthy relationships with food. For this reason, children shouldn’t be made to think they have to eat more than they want to just to make their parents happy or proud. “It’s an odd thing to ask of someone, isn’t it?” says nutritionist Karine Gravel. “Ultimately, it has a negative impact on the child’s emotions.” It’s best to let your child decide when they’re full, since they’re the only ones who know how much their body 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. “It makes dessert seem like the prize, so the child starts to view the main course as an obstacle,” explains Guylaine Guèvremont, who holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and co-authored the book Manger, un jeu d’enfant (Turning mealtime into child’s play). In other words, the plan can backfire!

“Finish 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 with your child either. Kids are more inclined to learn to like a food if it’s introduced to them in a setting where adults are enjoying it. “The child has to like it—end of story,” says Guèvremont. “Kids will eat their peas if you make them, but that won’t change their opinion, so there’s a risk they’ll develop a negative relationship with food. The parent’s role is to help their child become a good eater for life.”

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 the same question whenever you hear these words? It’s never been more difficult to strike a life-work balance, which means preparing regular meals is a real challenge! Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution. The key is meal planning. An organized pantry stocked with handy staples (e.g., canned tuna, canned tomatoes, legumes, rice, pasta, quinoa, oats, nuts, muesli) is also a must.

Parents who are short on time actually stand to gain from putting more effort into planning their meals and managing the contents of their fridge and freezer. “Plus, it’s better for your health and your wallet,” says nutritionist Hélène Laurendeau, author of Ma Cuisine (My kitchen).

More variety, but also more processed foods

Meat, potatoes, and a vegetable (right from a can): does that sound like the blueprint for your childhood meals? Variety in weekday meals wasn’t always as important as it is today.

It’s better to eat simple home-cooked meals than to buy prepared ones.

Many parents these days go to great pains to add variety to their meals, drawing inspiration from online recipes and cooking shows. However, when time is short, they often turn immediately to ready-made meals and processed ingredients—both of which, Laurendeau says, are becoming increasingly common at the grocery store.

“The food industry doesn’t want us to cook; it wants to sell us solutions,” she explains. “The problem is, 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, a cheese omelette, pasta with broccoli, baked fish with vegetables, or even cereal or toast with peanut butter is better than many prepared meals. What’s more, cooking at home is much more economical than buying prepared foods.

A lack of knowledge

In the 1980s, kiwis were considered an exotic fruit. Today, they’re commonplace. Children now have access to a much wider range of foods than we did at their age. However, they’re also exposed to far more processed foods than farm-grown products. The result is a lack of knowledge about food, as several studies have shown.

We should be teaching kids about where basic foods come from, how they’re made, and what they look like by bringing them with us to the grocery store, fruit stands, and U-pick farms and taking them to see farm animals,” says Laurendeau. “And we have to invite them to get hands-on in the kitchen!” What does a lettuce plant look like? Where does cheese come from? What does cereal look like before it goes into a box? These are all great topics to discuss around the table!

Family meals on the decline

Thirty years ago, we rarely heard about how important it was to eat as a family. We ate together, period! Today, much is made of topics such as eating enough vegetables and protecting the environment, while eating as a family gets put on the back burner. “Daily family meals build social bonds. Children learn not only how to eat, but also good table manners and how to communicate with others,” says sociologist Nathalie Lachance.

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 form an identity,” says Lachance. “A family needs to spend time being a family to raise well-adjusted kids.”

The right age to introduce new food
The Canadian Paediatric Society, Health Canada, and Dietitians of Canada currently recommend introducing complementary foods after about 6 months. Your mother may have told you that you were eating purées by the time you were 2 months old. This was, in fact, common practice at the time. “However, as early as the 1970s, experts knew it wasn’t the best approach for babies,” says nutritionist Louise Lambert-Lagacé. She notes that many moms continued to introduce new foods after just 2 or 3 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 guest at the table

In the past, households usually had only TV, and it was usually in the living room. Today, we are surrounded by screens—computers, cellphones, tablets—and they follow us wherever we go.

Screens have become members of the family with a seat at the table,” says Marie Marquis, full professor in the department of nutrition at the Université de Montréal. “They’re the reason there’s less talk at mealtime.” 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 to obesity,” explains nutritionist Myriam Gehami, co-author 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

Since the 1950s and 1960s, serving sizes in restaurants and among processed foods in general have increased considerably. Bigger servings encourage people to eat more. In addition, since people are cooking less, they’re eating more processed foods from the grocery store or restaurants, which has an even greater impact on their diet.

People tend to eat larger portions today because their frames of reference have completely changed. The generous servings you get at restaurants and the portions of ready-made food at grocery stores suggest it’s normal to eat so much. Instead of looking to these for guidance, it’s better to trust your body and your hunger cues.

To teach your child to eat properly, ask them if they’re a little hungry or very hungry at mealtime. Sit down to eat, put away screen devices, and let your child stop eating when their tummy “tells” them they’re full.

More health problems

“Life expectancy normally increases from one generation to the next,” says nutritionist Amandine Moukarzel. “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 a major reason for this decline.

Statistics reported by Michel Lucas, an epidemiologist, chef, and professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Université Laval, are also concerning. According to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, in 1978–79, 23 percent of children aged 2 to 17 were overweight or obese, compared with 35 percent of children of the same age in 2004. In 2017, 30 percent of children aged 5 to 17 were overweight or obese.

According to Lucas, the most harmful foods are juices and sugary drinks, which should be replaced with more healthy, minimally processed foods. He thinks we should be doing more to promote good eating habits, such as getting kids into the habit of drinking water. Furthermore, he believes the problem isn’t just what people are eating, but also what we’re eating less of, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, and vegetable oils. “Healthy eating has to become normal and enjoyable,” he says.

Almost half the daily calories consumed by children come from ultra-processed foods, says Marie-Jeanne Rossier-Bisaillon, a nutritionist at Collectif Vital. She believes this has to change. “Foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fats contribute to a number of health problems, such as tooth decay, tooth erosion, and type 2 diabetes,” she says. “In addition, more and more children are developing cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension.”

“That’s not good for you!”

In the 1980s and 1990s, people weren’t especially concerned about nutrition. We have since become better informed, and many parents now forbid their children from eating foods that are considered bad.

However, from time to time, it’s 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,” says Gravel.

Sneaky marketing used by grocery stores

Grocery stores use a variety of strategies to tempt shoppers, even in the fruit section. These techniques are known as food marketing.

By the Naître et grandir team

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 want to 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 produce section, since in most cases it’s the section closest to the entrance. 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. But proceed with caution: they can be expensive and less nutritious than other options.

The aisles

Staple foods, such as dairy products and eggs, tend to be found at the back or sides of the store. By making it necessary to walk by 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 where your gaze naturally falls: lower at the ends of the aisle and higher in the middle. Always scan both high and low along the full length of the shelves to find the best deal. Also, keep in mind that products that target kids are placed on the shelves where little ones can see them when seated in a shopping cart.


Our eyes are drawn to discounted prices. According to the magazine Protégez-Vous, grocery stores typically offer savings of 10 to 30 percent, 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. What’s more, if you need to buy other ingredients to prepare and cook the discounted meat or protein you’ve picked up, are you really saving money?

Samples, eye-catching displays, brightly-coloured labels . . . every aspect of a grocery store is designed to get you to fill up your cart.

Many products go on special on a regular basis, so it might be worth waiting for a sale. Be careful not to fall for items displayed at the ends of aisles (endcaps). 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. The goal is to make your visit an enjoyable experience from start to finish. After all, the happier you are, the longer you’ll stay and the more you’ll buy!

Loyalty programs

More and more grocery stores are offering loyalty programs. Most of these programs require you to install an app on your smartphone. Loyalty programs collect data on you so that stores can understand your shopping habits and needs.

Generally, experts agree that loyalty programs can help you stretch your grocery budget. However, you need to be able to tell the difference between a good deal and a bad deal. For example, it’s best to avoid offers that force you to buy more to get a discount.

Don’t forget to activate your offers before shopping if your store app requires it. Also, be sure to double-check that the products you put in your cart are eligible for offers or points. That way, you’ll avoid unpleasant surprises at the checkout counter. Lastly, remember to regularly redeem your points once you’ve earned enough to put them toward a purchase.

Appealing to kids
According to a report by Collectif Vital, 90 percent of food products on grocery store shelves with packaging aimed at children are ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt, or fat.
Children are 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 Canadian bill that would ban the practice of advertising to children through food packaging is currently under examination.

Click to save!

Coupons and mobile apps can also help you shrink your grocery bill. Websites can also be very useful for comparing prices or finding out the best time to buy a food product. Here are our favourite websites and apps for saving money at the grocery store and eating well:

Tips for saving on groceries

The way we eat has 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.

Heading to the store with your grocery list and coupons in hand is a great starting point for saving money and avoiding over-buying. Here are some other tips to help you lower your grocery bill.

Every aspect of a grocery store—from smells and colours to free samples, bright packaging, and product displays—is designed to make you want to buy more. Keep these food marketing strategies in mind so that you don’t fall into the trap.

  • Before heading out to the grocery store, snap some photos of the inside of your fridge and pantry. Once you’re in the store, you can refer back to them to help you buy only what you need. This will save you from buying items you already have. Pay close attention to fresh fruit, vegetables, and bakery items, as these are the products that are most often wasted.
  • Make a list of the special offers and discounts you find in flyers or mobile apps, including loyalty program apps. Before adding an item to your cart, ask yourself if you really need it. This will help you stick to your budget.
  • Look at the labels on the shelves to find out a product’s price by weight. When products come in different sizes, this is the best way to compare prices. Food companies are increasingly using a tactic known as “shrinkflation,” which consists of reducing product volume but keeping the packaging and price the same. Essentially, you’re getting less bang for your buck.
  • Beware of colourful price tags designed to grab your attention. Lift up the tag to make sure you’re actually getting a discount. A “2 for $5” deal might seem like a deal, but that’s not always the case. These types of specials are also designed to get people to buy more.
  • Steer clear of foods that have already been cut, peeled, or grated (e.g., grated carrots, grated cheese, cubed, etc.). It’s much cheaper to buy whole foods and prepare them yourself at home. As a rule of thumb, pre-prepared foods are usually more expensive.
  • Vary your protein sources. Eggs, tofu, legumes, and textured vegetable protein are easy to cook and are more cost effective than meat.
  • Supplement animal proteins with other types of ingredients. Meat and fish can really drive up your grocery bill. So, it’s best to serve them in smaller portions alongside other ingredients. For example: add thin slices of fondue beef to an Asian soup, or mix fish into a pasta dish with béchamel sauce and vegetables. You can also add plant proteins like lentils or other legumes into meat-based recipes.
  • Use budget-friendly swaps in your favourite recipes. For example, you could use chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts or trout instead of salmon. You could also adapt a recipe to take advantage of sales on vegetables.
  • Take only what you need and avoid buying something just because it’s on special. Ask yourself, “How (and when) am I going to use this product?” Otherwise, some groceries might end up in the garbage. Waste is the biggest drain on your budget!
  • Give store brands a chance. Their quality and nutritional value are on par with the big brands.
  • Think “zero waste.” Zero-waste stores are becoming increasingly common. Their prices are often more affordable, and shopping there can reduce your environmental footprint.
  • Think before you click. If you do your grocery shopping online, it’s easy and tempting to click “add to cart” and lose sight of how much you’re spending. Before you check out, review your cart to make sure it’s in line with your needs and budget.
  • Keep an eye on delivery app spending. Apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash are growing in popularity. However, since the bill is charged directly to your credit card, it can be easy to lose track of how much you’ve spent on them. Helpful tip: make a note of all the purchases you make through these apps, and set yourself a maximum monthly budget.
Naître et grandir

SourceNaître et grandir magazine, September 2017
Research and copywriting: Stéphanie Côté, nutritionist
Scientific review: Jordan LeBel, professor of food marketing, Concordia University
Updated: January 2024


Photos: Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/Paul Bradbury, GettyImages/Juanmonino, Gettyimages/Fatcamera 



  • Collectif Vital, Portrait québécois de la publicité alimentaire faite aux enfants, 2019
  • “Food marketing exposure and power and their associations with food-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviours: a narrative review.” World Health Organization, 2022.
  • “Prévenir le gaspillage alimentaire.”
  • “Canada’s food-waste problem is out of control. Here’s how to break the cycle.
  • “A Review on the Challenges and Choices for Food Waste Valorization: Environmental and Economic Impacts.” Roy, P., et al., 2023.
  • “A Review of Household Food Waste Generation during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Everitt, H., P. van der Werf, and J. A. Gilliland, 2023.
  • “The Hidden Face of Shrinkflation.” Daniel Blanchette Pelletier, 2023.
  • Canadian Bill C-252, under study, to prohibit any marketing of food and beverages directed at persons under the age of 13.