Time: 45-60 minutes


Many families face extensive conflict when trying to get children to cooperate with efforts to eat more healthfully. In contrast, many other families have little conflict; children are actively engaged in discussions, and they are willing to take on responsibility, when it comes to working with other family members to figure out healthy eating plans and practices. In a focus group study of family practices and conversations about eating healthfully (and unhealthfully), we learned that families with effective and positive communication regarding food-related issues were found to have frequent food-related conversations with children, set clear "ground rules" for eating, and involve children as "partners" in making food-related decisions.


All family members need opportunities to talk, be heard, and make a contribution to important family matters. This includes making decisions about food -- what foods to purchase, methods of food preparation, and what the family does during mealtimes. This activity aims to encourage family members to discuss how such decisions are made in their family, and consider how children can be valuable partners in the process of meal planning, food shopping and meal preparation. The underlying theme is one of trying to build a sense of teamwork and partnership in how the family functions when discussing food-related issues and making decisions. Emphasis is placed on the importance of active participation on the part of all family members. The rationale is that this will increase the family's overall ability to come up with creative, workable strategies to address food-related challenges.


General Objectives

  • Participants will become more aware of who makes family decisions about food.
  • Participants will express their feelings as to whether they would like more/less/the same amount of influence over decision-making.
  • Participants will be able to adopt elements of participatory styles of decision-making.

Specific Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  • Engage other family members in an open discussion about the level of involvement (and empowerment) of all family members in making decisions about food.
  • Describe the power differential between family members when making decisions about food.
  • Develop family plans for making food-related decisions as "partners."


  • sets of color dot stickers (each with 4 colors); one set per family
  • copies of handouts #1 and #2; one for each family


  1. In one large group, read the 3 family scenarios which describe family situations involving food.

    Family Scenario #1

    Grandmother: "This morning, I had made cream of wheat. And I had some meat and orange juice. She didn't stop in the kitchen. She kept going. And I'm calling her to come have breakfast and she's going to school."

    Family Scenario #2

    Child: "Usually when we have dinner, then I just take a look and if I don't see something I like, I'll go back to my room."

    Family Scenario #3

    Child: "Usually, my grandma and me just sit down and make a list of the things we're going to make, like apple pie or mashed potatoes or something. And then we just go to the store and get the stuff that we're going to make and then we just make it."

    Grandmother: "I started when they were little. You know, it's something that we prepare the meals together. And there are sometimes that they like to do that. I was laid up last year, I had surgery on my back was out, and I could not do anything. And they just took over everything. They did the cooking. I was really surprised. I knew they could cook, but I didn't think they could do it on their own without me being there. But they could."

    For each scenario, ask participants to share their views regarding who is responsible, and who should be responsible, for the situation described in the slide.

    Focusing on one scenario at a time, ask participants for their responses to the following questions:

    • Do the members of this family respect one another?
    • Are the children part of the decision-making team?
    • [When on the third scenario ask:] How would this family compare to the families highlighted in scenarios 1 and 2 in terms of: family harmony? How they eat? What they eat?
    [Note: Discussion about scenario 3 could be a good way to encourage families with a particularly domineering parent or child to engage in open discussion.]
  2. After the discussion from scenario 3 is completed, break the large group into smaller groups, each consisting of members of the same family.
  3. Provide the following introduction: This exercise aims to stimulate discussion about how decisions are made in your family when it comes to food. We will present 12 food-related situations and ask your opinion about (a) who has the most power in making these decisions, and (b) whether you would like to have more influence in making these decisions.

    Explain that in their family groups, they will fill out two handouts: "Who Holds the Most Power?" and "From Power to Partnership." Give out the first handout.

    Handout 3-2 (1): Who Holds the Most Power?

    Give out stickers: Red stickers to children, blue stickers to parents, green stickers to grandparents, and yellow stickers to other relatives who may be participating.

  4. For Handout #1 ("Who Holds the Most Power?"): Directions: For each food-related type of decision, put your sticker next to the column of the person in your family (child, parent, grandparent, other family member) who you feel has the most power in making this decision. More than one sticker can be placed in one box -- For example, if all family members feel that the parent has the most power in deciding "What foods the family buys" (question #1), then everyone should place their sticker under "parent." Participants should not place a sticker down for those decisions for which "power" is shared. [Note: If colored stickers aren't available, assign each family member a simple symbol (e.g. *, #). Have them write it in pencil.]

    Have family members compare where they placed their stickers. For any differences of opinion, have participants explain the rationale behind their decisions.
    Handout 3-2 (2): From Power to Partnership

  5. Give out Handout #2 ("From Power to Partnership): Directions: For each food-related topic, put your sticker in your column if you feel you would like to have more influence in the way your family makes this type of food-related decision.
  6. After some discussion, give family members the chance to revise their responses, in part to achieve as much consensus as possible. What will (hopefully) evolve is a visually "colorful" picture of the decision-making dynamics of the family.
  7. End the family groups part of the session by encouraging families to identify steps they can take to involve more family members in making plans to eat more healthfully.
  8. Large group discussion: Facilitate discussion about the following:
    • To what extent was there agreement/disagreement in family members' feelings about who should hold the power to make food-related decisions in their families.
    • Which decisions had the most agreement?
    • Which decisions had the least agreement?


Many families struggle with the question of how much to involve children in making decisions about important matters such as food selection. This is really a question about power relations, i.e., who has control in making decisions about food. For many, this line of discussion is a very sensitive topic and there are often strong feelings involved. The intent of this activity is not to try to engage in family or individual counseling. It merely aims to stimulate discussion and reflection about the role of individual family members in terms of how the family functions when it comes to making decisions about food.

In conducting this activity, it is likely that you will encounter families with children who have no influence on food-related decisions as well as families in which children over-ride their parents and have complete control over food-related decisions. Both situations are undesirable: When one generation, either child or (grand)parent operates in a unilateral, domineering fashion, family members of other generations are afforded few opportunities for providing meaningful input in a non-adversarial manner. Alternatively, when making food-related decisions as a "partnership" among family members, there is likely to be more buy-in, less resistance, and more cooperation from family members.

To address concerns that the "partnership" concept can undermine parental responsibility, you can note that the child is really more of a "junior partner." The underlying theme here is one of trying to build a collaborative process. One definition of collaboration is that all parties work toward "enhancing the capacity of the other."

Remind participants about the family highlighted in scenario #3. It illustrates a child who is confident, competent, and helpful when it comes to planning and preparing meals.

If participating families are encountering communication problems during the course of this activity, consider doing a review of the RECIPE handout (see handout 1-2 (1) in Section 1).

Contact Us

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging

Contact Us

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging