SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF
Commerce, care and maternal practice
Drawing upon in-depth interviews with mothers
in the US about feeding their young children,
this article examines how consumer culture
– broadly construed – constitutes part of the
indispensable context of mothering practices. The
argument put forward is that mothers not only
provide food and sustenance for their children,
but necessarily encounter, engage with and make
use of commercial meanings of foodstuffs as part
and parcel of the caring work they accomplish
while providing food and meals. The concept of
‘semantic provisioning’ is meant to capture the
meaning-making labor of mothers as it arises in
sometimes contentious negotiations with children
over ‘proper’ and ‘appropriate’ foodstuffs and
meals. The approach offered seeks to demonstrate
how commerce, sentiment, caring and children’s
subjectivities interweave at the level of practice.
Pecuniary value and market relations figure regularly and intimately in the
practices and self-understandings of contemporary American mothers. Mothers
attend to, engage with and involve themselves in commercial life integrating
‘consumption’, in a general sense, into ways of being a mother and of caring
for children. To affix motherhood to commercial life in this way is not to
affirm the simple thesis that motherhood has been or is being commodified,
or that some kind of ‘commodity frontier’ (Hochschild, 2003) is encroaching
upon the home and family. Indeed, that much is evident to mothers, scholars
and marketers (Coffey et al., 2006; Cook, 1995; Seiter, 1993). By bringing
the two together I mean to assert that much of contemporary motherhood
can not usefully be understood apart from commercial life and its extensions.
We cannot ‘know’ motherhood without ‘knowing’ the consumer/commercial
contexts of mothers’ lives and, by direct implication, the commercial lives and
contexts of children and childhood.
In claiming the inseparability of consumption, childhood and mother-
hood, I am aligning myself with a segment of social thought that challenges
economistic thinking that continues to dominate a good deal of social
DANIEL THOMAS COOK
Rutgers University–Camden, USA
care, children, consumption, food,
Daniel Thomas Cook
Rutgers University, Department of
Childhood Studies, Department of
Sociology, 405–7 Cooper Street, Camden,
NJ 08102, USA.
Childhood Vol. 16(3): 317–334
© The Author(s), 2009. Reprints and permissions:
research. Best represented by the recent work of Viviana Zelizer (2005), the
general, analytic thrust of this approach seeks to detail the various dynamics
that pertain between economic life and sentimental/emotional life (see also
Clarke, 2004; Dorow, 2002). Rather than discounting the world of markets,
production and consumption as being incommensurable with sentiment and
intimacy – what Zelizer (2005) calls the ‘hostile worlds’ view – the idea is
to fuse together traditionally separated arenas of existence (e.g. home/work;
My concern here centers on engaging the problematics arising from the
economy–culture–meaning–sentiment nexus by way of examining mother-
hood – or rather, aspects or moments of mothering – as embedded in and
informed by consumer practice, entangled as it is with children’s food, sub-
jectivities and desires. I am in full agreement with Ellen Seiter, who states that
‘contemporary parenthood is always and already embedded in consumerism’
(Seiter, 1993: 3). Consumption forms a significant context for mothering in
large part because children and childhood are likewise embedded in commer-
cial life, often from the outset of their existence (Clarke, 2004), particularly in
North American and global North contexts. Engagement with and in the world
of goods, moreover, extends beyond the store aisle and beyond the moment
of technical exchange at the cashier’s till. Through acts of provisioning – and
specifically what I call semantic provisioning – mothers remain active and
productive in the commercial lives of their children well after a good has been
In the following discussion, I give dimension to and expand upon these
notions and problems through an examination of narratives proffered by four
employed US mothers regarding the ways they feed and think about feed-
ing their children. Taken from interviews, these mothers’ reports provide
an entrée into some of the everyday interplay between the provisioning of
food, the policing of nutrition, the enactment of care and encounters with
con sumer culture in its various forms and venues. Key insights arising from
this discussion focus on understanding the necessity of including the world
of con sumption directly and immediately into the context of mothering, and
grasping the importance of acknowledging the play and force of children’s
subjectivities in relation to practices of care (Kaplan, 2000). Prior to present-
ing the interview material, I briefly discuss some research and thinking about
mothers, children and consumer culture.
A missing child?
Arlie Hochschild (2003) has recently addressed commercialization, mother-
hood, home and intimate life, positing a ‘commodity frontier’ encroaching
upon the family and the home. With the increasing ‘outsourcing’ to the market-
place of what used to be household tasks like cleaning and preparing full
meals, Hochschild notes that the American family is facing a ‘deficit of care’
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
as the home continues to be configured as a unit of consumption (Hochschild,
2003: 35–9). Some families, she notes in another publication (Hochschild,
2005), ‘rent’ mothers – i.e. pay for the some household services traditionally
associated with mothers – and some hire people to perform tasks like putting
together a family’s photographs into album. Hochschild examines these and
other emergent practices in terms of how people ‘jump over’, ‘borrow across’
or ‘listen through’ what she calls the ‘wall between market and non-market
life’ so as to negotiate appropriate feelings in the context of commercialized
The insights Hochschild offers regarding the interplay between com-
mercialized services, emotions and changing notions of intimate home life are,
as is typical of her scholarship, eye-opening and provocative. Yet, her overall
project and problem suffer from the use of the language of ‘frontier’ and the
metaphor of a ‘wall’. The imagery deployed here reaffirms the divisions and
boundaries under scrutiny to the extent that they continue to demarcate the very
divides that require reconceptualization. In this view, ‘home’ and ‘sentimental
life’ remain outside of and categorically antagonistic to ‘the market’.
To be sure, Hochschild’s treatment focuses strongly on how to rethink
home and family and their relationship to the market. But, by presenting the
problem structure as one where ‘the market’ or ‘commercialization’ are so
easily identifiable with the exchange of money for services, she ultimately
reifies and reinforces an almost modernist division between home and market,
offering something akin to a Parsonian rendition of a dual transaction between
these two, presumably distinguishable, realms of life. Some questions arise:
Why does this ‘wall’ or ‘frontier’ divide economic from non-economic as
opposed to, say, dividing intimate from non-intimate, or public from private
life? Why not posit an ‘intimacy frontier’ encroaching upon economic life?
Durkheim (1915), after all, argued that ritual interdictions are put in place to
keep the sacred from making incursions on the profane, not the other way
In Feeding the Family (1991), DeVault argues that women, in the activ-
ities of shopping for, preparing and cooking food, accomplish something
beyond simply providing sustenance and nourishment. Based on interviews
with mothers and wives, she discusses how women actively produce the
family through ‘thoughtful coordination and interpersonal work’, which
serves to ‘maintain the kind of group life we think of as a family’ (DeVault,
1991: 39). In the very acts of considering and responding to the personal
needs and preferences of family members, women’s activities demonstrate the
importance of food and meals in the expressive life of the family (DeVault,
Shopping, for DeVault, is part and parcel of the caring work a woman
does when she is producing the family as it ‘supports the production of
meaningful patterns of household life by negotiating connections between
household and market’ (DeVault, 1991: 59). The thoughtful consideration of
tastes and preferences that go into a meal often takes place in the food aisle
of the grocery store (see also Phillips, 2008). Continuous and contiguous with
the home, the marketplace for DeVault provides a context for the provisioning
of food, i.e. for the labor required to turn the generalized purchased products
into specialized items for the family (DeVault, 1991: 66–70).
DeVault’s analysis does well in demonstrating the avenues traversed
between household and market, but in so doing she, in ways similar to
Hochschild, reaffirms that modernist division, particularly in her treatment of
provisioning. In setting the ‘context’ for home provision, the market seems to
‘enter’ the household rarely, and only as an intruder. When women make meals
and thus produce family, it appears as though the market all but disappears,
with little mention of brand names, celebrities, characters or television shows
reported by women.1 One gets a sense from DeVault that the home still serves
as something of an emotional haven from a cold, calculating world of com-
merce, particularly through women’s caring work of provisioning (see also
Warde, 1992, 1997: 126–54).2
I empathize greatly with the difficulty of attempting to transcend or
otherwise reimagine the relationship between two arenas, spheres or ‘worlds’
that have been dichotomized and redichotomized in social thought for quite
a long time (Hochschild, 2005: 80–1; Zelizer, 2005). The preferable point of
departure, as discussed earlier, centers on seeing motherhood and childhood
as enmeshed in economic and specifically commercial–consumer relations
and arrangements from the outset – not as separated by a wall or frontier
boundary. Such an approach works toward removing economic presumptions
from determining the terms of the analysis, a goal shared by many including,
most directly, Zelizer (2005).
What is missing in these discussions – to different extents and in different
ways – is, surprisingly, studied attention to children and childhood. Zelizer,
the author of what I consider a latter-day sociological classic, Pricing the
Priceless Child (1985), nevertheless gives children and childhood the short
shrift in her recent work (2005), but curiously not in other recent statements
(Zelizer, 2002). Devoting only about five pages specifically to ‘kids’ consump-
tion’ in The Purchase of Intimacy (Zelizer, 2005: 236–40), children seem to
be something of an afterthought to her larger project, almost an aside in a
chapter on ‘household consumption’. For Hochschild, children are, for the
most part, implied rather than explicitly addressed in her discussions of the
home and family (Hochschild, 2003, 2005). They are present almost as if by
definition instead of by purposeful commission.
Children must be recognized as actors who are significantly and multiply
involved in the construction and constitution of family life (Kaplan, 2000) in
order to appreciate, analytically and practically, the interplay between mother-
hood, commercial value and sentiment. Mothers deal with not simply the
market or economic side of consumption. They are involved with intuiting,
acknowledging and adjudicating children’s desires on a daily, sometimes
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
hourly, basis. These desires and their expressions, regardless of their specific
object or content, nevertheless regularly implicate the world of goods and
consumption (Clarke, 2004). Basic requirements like love, companionship,
learning/education, sleeping and eating will in some way eventually require
some sort of commercial involvement on the part of parents. A hungry child
is most often fed with purchased food or food made out of purchased com-
ponents; a restless child may be given toys or sat in front of a television.
Here, I continue to push the line of thinking that acknowledges the extent
to which parental caring practices entail engagement with the commercial
world in some manner – with its imagery and meanings as well as material
things. I do so by situating children’s subjectivities and agency, particularly
as they arise as expressions of desire in mothers’ narratives, squarely in the
analysis and context of mothering.
Research context and considerations
My intent centered on gaining insight into how mothers of young children,
approximately ages two through eight, thought about and felt about everyday
prac tices of feeding their children. Between 2004 and 2006, I interviewed
mothers who were employed either outside or inside the home, and those
laboring exclusively as ‘stay-at-home moms’. My initial contacts arose
from soli citing interviewees through an online mothers’ group consisting
of employees at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. A total of
23 mothers were inter viewed, some by way of snowball sampling of these
mothers, who were not professors, and others through personal contacts in
Chicago. Most interviews were conducted face-to-face and some by telephone
when convenient or necessary.
The majority of the women were white and could be described as pro-
fessional or middle-class. Fourteen worked outside the home either full- or
part-time. Five stayed at home as full-time mothers; four had employment that
allowed them to work from home. At least five women could be considered
working class by profession, although several others indicated their family
origins when discussing their father’s and/or mother’s occupation or life
circumstances when growing up. One was Filipino who worked more than
full-time, one an African-American woman who was training to be a nurse
and a third, a white woman of Polish descent who worked as a nurse in a
I presented my topic and intentions as wanting to get to know what they,
as mothers, do on a day-to-day basis when it comes to feeding their children.
The interviews were semi-structured and open-ended (McCracken, 1988;
Rubin and Rubin, 2005). Most often I asked about daily routines for different
meals, times of day and times of year (school and non-school) focusing on
their knowledge and actions in the home. We discussed such things as beliefs
about food and nutrition, the pleasures and anxieties of being a mother and
children’s preferences, patterns and foibles.
As DeVault and others make clear, ‘provisioning’ generally refers to activities
which interweave ‘market activity’ proper (i.e. purchasing) with social-
emotional ends and contexts like caring and providing for family members,
with an emphasis on how women’s efforts transform purchased goods into
meals thereby creating and sustaining ‘family’. Power (2004: 6) refers to
‘social provisioning’ to call attention to the ‘interdependent social processes’
of economic activity and away from assumptions regarding simple pecuniary
pursuits done for individualistic reasons. Neysmith and Reitsma-Street (2005:
383) see provisioning as ‘the work of securing resources and providing the
necessities of life to those for whom one has relationships of responsibility’.
In different vein, Warde (1992, 1997) identified four modes of provision –
market, state, household and communal – each of which involved different
kinds of social relations, manners of delivery and experiences of consumption
(i.e. as a customer, citizen, kin or friend; see also Southerton, 2006).
The mothers I interviewed and discuss in the following sections enacted
a different kind of provisioning than that related directly to shopping and
preparation, engaging in what I am calling ‘semantic provisioning’. Semantic
provisioning refers to the ways in which caretakers attend to, create, negotiate
and act upon the social meaning of goods. Mothers – like anyone else – neces-
sarily encounter and deal with the meanings of things, including com mercially
generated meanings, in conjunction with functional, use values (if these can be
usefully separated). In the course of caring for others, these meanings require
attention and often negotiation as they are part and parcel of the activities at
hand – in this case eating food and sharing meals.
The point of provisioning usually is to provide things for others’ use and
perhaps for their pleasure, but the ‘things’ provided are not self-evident in
terms of their social meaning. Caregivers must make distinctions in the process
of creating and negotiating meaning, distinctions which necessarily discern
‘good’ from ‘bad’ and ‘appropriate’ from ‘inappropriate’ food and meals (see
Barthes, 1997; Douglas, 1997), often in conflict with children’s definitions
(James, 1979; Kaplan, 2000). The acts of definition do not necessarily speak
to children’s (or mother’s) pleasure, but to the relationship being negotiated
between provider and providee.
In semantic provisioning, as well, what is provided in addition to specific
meanings of specific things are larger, culturally inflected categories of the
‘field’ (Bourdieu, 1993) in question. These categories speak to questions
of, for instance, what or when is a ‘meal’, a ‘snack’ or a ‘treat’, or what is
‘healthy’ or not. Hence, I employ the term ‘semantic provisioning’ precisely
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
to identify the uses of language in the negotiation and creation of meaning of
foodstuffs and meals.
I have chosen to present the stories of four mothers in some depth instead of
identifying themes across a larger number of interviewees and then extract ing
quotes to support or illustrate a particular theme. The point here is to situate
their narratives and practices in the context of their lives and activities as
mothers. I make no claim that the experiences of these four mothers exhaust-
ively represent some cross-section of mothering practices. The limited geo-
graphical area involved, the age of the mothers and their status as employed
all contribute to specifying their social locations and practices. Rather, I chose
these stories to gain a sense of the difference, depth and overlap of the various
mothering strategies at work and to illustrate how semantic provisioning,
children’s desires and commercial culture intermingle in everyday caring
The overriding preoccupation with the mothers I interviewed centered,
unsurprisingly, on facilitating a healthy, nutritious alimentary life for their
children. Notions of exactly what comprises ‘healthy’ foods or meals and
what makes one thing ‘nutritious’ or not differed to some degree among the
mothers, despite their relatively homogeneous social profiles. Nutrition and
health emerged as an ongoing accomplishment or aspiration – something that
rarely occurs on its own, requiring some level of intervention on the mother’s
part. Similar in temperament to Murphy’s (2007) findings, mothers identified
the children themselves – their wants and desires – as posing immediate and
significant obstacles to their own health and nutrition. The focus of these
mothers’ emotional, physical and semantic labor thus centered on grappling
with children’s subjectivities and agency at any age.
Mary works nearly full-time in a professional capacity at the University of
Illinois in Urbana. Thirty-four years old with two daughters aged six and four
at the time of the interview, Mary is able to work at home some days and has
flexibility in terms of her time spent at the office to accommodate her caring
duties. She describes the difficulty in providing for her children:
I would watch [other] kids eating hot dogs or macaroni and cheese and think ‘Oh,
God. I’d never feed that to my kids’. That’s just awful, you know. I can’t believe
that that could be someone’s sustenance. And then you look and you’re like ‘Oh, my
God. My kids are eating mac and cheese for the third day in a row’. I mean, what
have I done wrong here?
I don’t think it’s unusual, based on talking to other parents. But kids go through
this sort of one-phase . . . peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese,
pizza, whatever it is. And eat one thing . . . for a while my kids were eating oatmeal
everyday and I thought ‘Great . . . they’re eating oatmeal everyday. I feel really
good about this’.
Here Mary alternates between dread and delight about her children’s
choices. She vacillates on the question of her influence on their choices, at
one point blaming herself for their macaroni and cheese fixation, at another
looking to other families for a sense of normalcy and at yet another point
expressing some satisfaction that oatmeal had taken over as a favorite, albeit
briefly. But Mary does not seem to take credit for their ‘good choices’, only
their ‘bad’ ones.
When asked if she felt their food choices were out of her control, she
first said yes and then added that this had to do with ‘what you put in front of
them’. Mary believes that ‘left to their own devices, children will . . . probably
make a poor food choice’. Some days, she explained, she is more ‘heavy
handed’ than others, requiring that they eat ‘something new’ or something
‘good for them’ before they leave the house. Other days, she admits being too
weary to battle and pleads simply for them to have something ‘good’.
She thus tries to give the children fewer options:
I can’t give them a choice, you know. ‘It’s a banana or nothing’. We do things like
‘You cannot have a treat (treat defined as fruit roll-up or something that comes in a
prepackaged . . . whatever) until you eat your dinner’.
Part of what Mary attempts to provide, part of the provisioning of food-
stuffs, includes definitions and categories of kinds of foods – a treat vs. dinner.
The point it seems is to get across a ‘proper’ (i.e. adult) sense of the difference
between everyday, sustenance foods and those which may be pleasurable and
desirable to her daughters but do not necessarily offer much nutrition (see
Alams, 2006). A ‘treat’ here stands as something special or apart from every-
day food as it is offered as a reward for eating or attempting to eat ‘something
nutritious’ (see Miller, 1998).
Defining the boundaries around a ‘treat’ works both for and against
Mary’s efforts. For one thing, the images and meanings provided by marketing
can blur the kinds of boundaries she wants to enforce and make steadfast. She
relates, for instance, how a yogurt package with the licensed Shrek character
on it enticed her children to request certain flavors. When the promotion
was over, however, she learned that her daughters only wanted the packages
adorned with the character and not the very same yogurt, despite her pleading
that the content and flavors were the same as before. The difficulty in enforcing
the food/treat division is exacerbated by some companies, according to Mary,
which have ‘gotten good at disguising’ treats as snacks, like a Rice Krispies
treat which has ‘nothing nutritious’ about it.
In response to this battle with commercial meanings, Mary admits to a
bit a of deception, calling soy hotdogs by the brand name, Ballparks (made of
meat), to make them ‘more attractive’ because ‘it sounds a little better’. Her
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
motivation and, one presumes, justification for deceit resides in the attempt to
put beneficial things into her daughters’ systems, by hook or by crook.
She relates the following story:
You try to give a healthy alternative and they sniff it out every single time. . . . For
a while I would give them Nutrigrain bars. . . . Certainly better than a Snickers bar
or whatever. And I call them ‘Mommy candy bars’. ‘You can have Mommy candy
bars. That’s a treat’ and they thought it was a treat. Well, then they learned that that
was a breakfast bar and had been duped for a year by mom.
Mary uses the children’s categories and their understandings of the meanings
and references of the commercial world of foodstuffs in an attempt to accom-
plish significant tasks that make up her understanding of mothering.
She seems to be involved in an intricate game of bait-and-switch with her
children. This is the obverse action of what Allison James (1979) discovered
regarding British children’s definitions of ‘ket’ vs ‘adult’ food whereby the
children countered adult definitions with their own. Mary realizes that their
food choices, especially for the daughter now in kindergarten, are becoming
out of her control and that she will exert decreasing influence as they get
older and spend more time with peers. Her hope is that her children will learn
what ‘good, real food’ is and her efforts in this manner have been to establish
Also a full-time professional at the University of Illinois, Kim’s approach
differs in some key ways from Mary’s when it comes to feeding her two
daughters, who were six and three-and-a-half at the time of the interview.
The girls exhibit the fickle/rigid pattern that seems typical of many young
They’ll get on kicks, I mean, it was a Fruit Loops kick for two months solid with
Jenna and then all of a sudden, one day, it was Rice Krispies . . . we’ve learned not
to try too many different things. They’ll like a hamburger. [But] they don’t like our
hamburgers on the grill for, like, dinner but they love McDonald’s hamburgers.
They often do not like the food that Kim fixes for herself and her
I love stir-fry and when we make stir-fry, they’re not gonna eat it . . . . I just will
either make some macaroni or some other thing that they’ll usually eat. . . . Then
they got used to it [Easy Mac brand macaroni and cheese] really quick and now
that’s all they really know. That’s the only kind I’ll get.
The girls’ tastes and preferences set the context for family meals and she
and her husband adjusted accordingly, i.e. they learned what not to make.
The centrality of her children’s subjectivities notwithstanding, Kim
endeavors to counter their resistance to novelty and to what she considers
healthy foods. Frustrated with cooking things that the girls then refuse to
eat, she instituted a ‘three-bite-rule’ whereby they must take three bites of
something to see if they like it before going on to other things. Kim, now 42,
wants to avoid making food and meals a test of wills:
I don’t want them to have a battle with food. I want them to enjoy it and I feel like if
you get enough of the good stuff then it balances with the other stuff, the treats and
things. . . . I try not to get into the whole dessert . . . like, clean your plate then you
can have dessert . . . because then it almost becomes like a forbidden thing.
Whereas Mary needed to limit her children’s choices, Kim seeks to encourage
making choices through a limited form of coercion. It is an open coercion, part
of the explicit rules of eating in her household.
Kim accomplishes the semantic positioning of food and meals for her
daughters in the ways she verbally situates all foods, initially at least, as equal
to one another in the sense that they cannot be discounted by her children as
undesirable until they have taken their three bites. Here branded, prepared and
processed foods can stand alongside homecooked meals. The emphasis is on
the child’s choice: ‘I want them to enjoy and not feel they have to hide food
from me. I want them to feel like they can have anything they want’. What
may appear to be ‘indulgence’ can be understood, in context, as providing the
meaning of food along with the substance.
Carole comes from a family of five girls whose father worked for the police
department and whose mother stayed home with them in a traditional, working-
class neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Thirty-three years old,
married and living in a Chicago suburb, she now works outside the home at
a professional job three days a week. At the time of the telephone interview,
Carole had three children, ages seven, five and three with her husband, Bob,
who works as an elevator constructor.
During workdays, when she commutes one hour each way, Carole’s
sister takes the children two days a week and a babysitter watches them the
other day. She accepts her inability to affect her children’s eating when she is
at work, particularly the day when the babysitter is in charge:
It’s really out of my control . . . I’ll ask the kids ‘What did you have for lunch?’ and
it usually consists of ‘Oh we had French fries and a frosty’ (laughing). And I’m like
‘I need to talk to her about that’.
She ‘doesn’t even ask’ what was served for lunch the days her sister is
in charge, in part because she feels she can compensate a ‘junk lunch’ with
a ‘good dinner’. She noted that her oldest has never had anything but peanut
butter and jelly sandwiches in her lunch for all of first and second grade and
‘she’s fine with it’.
In comparison with other mothers interviewed, Carole does not seem
concerned about her children’s minute, moment-to-moment food intake or
about the variety in their diet, feeling no need to monitor it to any great extent.
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
When asked about what they might have during the days she is not around,
she listed things like peanut butter and jelly or ham sandwiches, canned soups
and various fruits in addition to ‘snacky things’ like Goldfish, granola bars,
Chips A’hoy cookies, Oreos cookies and Pringles potato chips.
Noting that her children rarely request things before going grocery
shopping, she takes the struggle in the supermarket aisle as a given:
That’s a constant. First thing you walk in the door they want quarters for the gum
ball machine. . . . And yeah of course they’re picking 10 things off the shelves. I
have a rule that they don’t pull things off the shelf . . . and my little one always does
it. And I’m in the store going ‘If you pull things off the shelves then you can’t come
to the store with them anymore’. And it usually ends up to be that each one of them
gets to pick something out.
Carole will not allow them to have Lunchables snack lunches, which her
daughter often requests because the ‘kids at school’ have them, as they are
The allure of media characters on cereals and other food packaging is
also taken as given by Carole. She reports that in the supermarket ‘they fight
about which one we’re gonna get. I usually end up with each one getting their
own box of characters that they like’. At one point the kids became infatuated
with SpongeBob SquarePants string cheese. ‘But I’ve broken them of that
habit because I just stopped buying them and got the regular ones’.
It became evident during our conversation that the focus of Carole’s
semantic labor was not so much on defining specific foods as good or bad
for them, or about media characters, as it was on their relationship with her
and on ‘family’ and on ‘structure’. Carole and Bob are clearly in charge, and
they make no apology for being strict. Unlike the reports of other mothers –
many of whom explicitly denied that their husbands or partners had any
significant involvement with feeding the children – Bob evidently has a
say in how they organize meals, as he piped into the conversation from the
. . . we don’t make any special courses for anybody because they don’t like
something. If they don’t like it . . . [HUSBAND BOB SPEAKING IN
BACKGROUND: ‘We’re old school’ (laughter)] Yeah, we’re old school. We tell
them they have to eat it, eat some of it, and go hungry if they don’t. ’Cause we’ll
have something they like tomorrow.
Carole and Bob enforce a ‘no TV rule’ during dinner, where they try to get
each person to talk about their day. Part of the structure Carole seeks to instill
revolves around making sure that the children eat their vegetables, which is
a requirement for dinners. She has one of them choose the vegetable for the
meal and feels that the lessons are penetrating as her oldest now asks if she
can be ‘excused’ from the table. She admits to offering ice cream occasionally
as a reward for eating the vegetables.
But, at the time of the interview, she was having standoffs with her
. . . she doesn’t want to eat her vegetables. And will get up with the other two and
I’ll tell her to sit back down. . . . She’ll tell me ‘yay, you can’t come in my room
anymore’ because I made her eat her vegetables. . . . Or she’ll tell me ‘I’ll lock
my door on you’. And I tell her ‘I’ll take the door off and you won’t have a door’
Carole is careful to avoid ‘tailor[ing] meals to them’, which requires
enforcing dinner rules to the point of extended struggles.
She sees providing structure in meals as a deep theme in her parenting
Carole: It seems like we give our kids so much leeway and so much indi-
viduality that they start to not understand structure.
Interviewer: And so you feel that the meal part is definitely an important way to get
Carole: Yeah, to let them know that there’s rules and you know, ‘we want you
to eat like this because it’s healthy.’ Yeah.
Interviewer: And what parts of their lives or other kids’ lives do you see there not
being as much structure as there could be?
Carole: Um, well we have friends that she makes the dinner and then she
makes the hot dog for her daughter because her daughter doesn’t eat
stuff. And that to me is just a waste of time. And it’s just a bad habit.
If you break the girl of it and not continue to feed into the bad habit,
she would probably learn to eat other foods and be fine with it.
The extended quote here offers a flavor of Carole and her husband’s
approach. It is a bit striking to hear an unqualified view that a child needs to
be ‘broken’ of a habit. Such language is rarely, if ever, heard in middle-class
circles. It conjures images of an earlier era of adult/parent absolutism. They
are admittedly ‘old school’. Yet, Carole sometimes bargains with them to eat
vegetables and appeases them with treats during shopping trips.
The desired ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ surrounding food and meals is
about parental authority. The ‘vegetables’ at issue with her daughter reside
in material and semantic opposition to ‘kid foods’ her daughter wants, like
cookies, macaroni and cheese and ‘character driven’ foods. As well, they
serve as a symbol of hers and Bob’s authority to define kid vs. adult, appro-
priate vs inappropriate. It is understood as a loving, caring authority neces-
sary to counter the bad habits that come with child-centered pampering, like
what her friend exhibits. Carole actively undermines and transforms the
commercial meanings and associations of ‘kids’ foods’ by fiat. Yet, children’s
subjectivities here remain central to mothering and to meals, not as something
to be indulged, but rather as forces with which to be reckoned.
A 31-year-old mother of four children, Rosie works as a waitress on the
Southwest Side of Chicago. I became acquainted with her as a regular patron
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
of the restaurant where I would go to do a little reading or to correct student
exams. She would freely talk about her hectic home life and was curious about
what I was ‘always reading’ at the table. Eventually, I asked her if she’d be
interested in being interviewed. One day we sat at a booth after her shift for
about an hour.
She has an eight-year-old girl, boys who are five and two, and an 11-
month-old girl. Only the two youngest live with her. ‘One hundred percent
Filipino’, Rosie works six days a week from between 8- and 12-hour shifts,
estimating that she averages around 58 hours a week. Her husband, who is
Mexican, works five–six days a week in 12-hour shifts in construction. A
friend lives with them and tends to the children during the day. Her husband
leaves about 9 or 10 in the morning and won’t return until 11 at night.
Rosie describes her mornings:
Oh, around 5 a.m. my daughter will get up. I’ll give her a bottle, she’ll lay back
down for a while. 6:30 I’ll get up to get ready for work. I’ll get dressed, I’ll bring . . .
the dirty cups, the dirty bottles, whatever, on the sink, I’ll get dressed, I’ll change
the baby . . . I’ll make her a fresh bottle, I’ll bring her in my friend’s room. . . . I’ll
make my lunch . . . I’ll get my stuff together. . . . Around 7:20 I’ll bring my son . . .
in my friend’s room, I’ll put him down in her [friend-babysitter] bed and he’ll lay
with her and I’ll give him a fresh cup, whatever of juice or milk.
. . . sometimes if my husband works early in the morning I’ll get up and I’ll make
him coffee, I’ll make him breakfast and I’ll leave it on the bed nightstand, you know
. . . a French toast, whatever I make him. I’ll wake him up and leave and usually he’s
crabby, he doesn’t want to talk to me so I leave him alone.
She is then off to serve food to others all day.
When her husband gets home from work at 11 p.m. or perhaps later, she
cooks for him then also, often waking their son:
. . . my son will be sleeping for hours but he’ll smell the food and he’ll eat with my
husband. He’s eating like midnight, which is not a good thing. Ok, I understand that.
But I’m not gonna tell the kid ‘no’ if he wants to eat . . . I’ll never deprive my kid of
food. . . . It could be 3 in the morning; he’s hungry, I’m gonna feed him.
For Rosie, ‘depriving’ means refusing not simply food when requested
but the specific food items requested. Focusing particularly on her young son,
she describes how he will find her eating Pringles or Oreos in another room
and also will want to eat. Her daughter ate a ‘whole bowl of Apple Jacks’ the
day before and the son had a whole box of Golden Grahams crackers. Acknow-
ledging that it’s ‘not the best’ for them she also adds that it’s not like this ‘all
When asked about ‘food rules’ she responded, ‘There’s none’. The
babysitter is instructed in her philosophy:
. . . whatever she [the friend-babysitter] eats, give it. Like, I told her ‘If you’re eating
something, don’t deprive them. If you’re eating, give them whatever you’re eating
because they see what you’re eating. . . . Let them have whatever’ and she knows
this. She’s my friend since my first daughter has been a year old.
Rosie’s approach might be called extreme egalitarianism when it comes
to food. She sees little need in enforcing a distinction between adults and
children, and thus between adult and child foods, sometimes giving her 11-
month-old a taste of Coca-Cola. She acknowledges the importance of healthful
foods like fruits and vegetables and makes dinners she considers to be ‘well
balanced’ with tortillas, rice and beans. She also sees no need in enforcing
rules regarding how much or when her children eat: ‘My kids . . . they’re
done, they’re done . . . I’m not gonna force them . . . to finish’.
She prefers not to go grocery shopping with the children because she
can’t control them, often winding up with opened cookie bags in the basket,
which she then has to purchase. Her objection is based on the cost of the
cookies picked out, not on the fact that her son had picked them out or that
they were cookies. She usually shops after work with a friend who has a car,
often spending more than she intended:
I can go there and say ‘I’m only gonna buy tomatoes, green peppers, onions and
some pork chops’. But $150 spending easily. So I’ll look, well I need juice, I need
cereal, I need oatmeal, I need eggs, I need tortillas. . . . And, of course, I’m a mother.
Of course I’m going up and down the aisle . . . ‘and maybe he’ll eat this’. ‘Oh, I
want to try this’. ‘Oh, I want to . . .’ That’s . . . I mean, my cabinet’s full of crap.
Crap I don’t even use.
As a mother, she shops with her children’s tastes, wants, desires and
pleasures in mind. Having come from a ‘strict background’ where she ate
‘only Filipino food’ her whole childhood, Rosie self-consciously strives
to offer her children a more open, more diverse culinary life than what she
The non-interventionist strategy taken by Rosie offers a different kind
of meaning, a different kind of provisioning than the others. It is by having
few boundaries around and rules regarding food that she can convey her sense
of openness about their mutual relationship and about eating and meals. She
exhibits a kind of faith in an inner, ‘natural child’ that what they want and
like, and how much of it, is in a sense self-regulating and the best way to keep
her children off sweets and junky snacks is not to consume these in front of
them in the first place. The enemy is not the market but adult practices. Her
children here are treated close to full persons, on equal footing with the adults
immediately around them.
Discussion and conclusion
The four mothers portrayed here represent points along an incompletely known
continuum of mothering strategies. We see the ‘deception’ strategy employed
by Mary to get her children to eat healthy foods in contrast to Kim’s explicit
‘three-bite-rule’. Carole and Bob’s uncompromising ‘old school’ approach
would probably seem incomprehensible to Rosie, who favors extremely egalit-
arian practices and beliefs when it comes to feeding her children. Through
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
these accounts, it is clear that mothers strive to provide definition, meaning
and categorical distinction to their children regarding food and meals in the
everyday practices of feeding them (see Barthes, 1997; Douglas, 1997). This
meaningful labor necessarily takes into account both children’s subjectivities
and the commercial aspects of the foods and contexts involved.
The push and pull of the definition and the transgression of categories –
some of which are more easily identified as ‘commercial’ than others – form
the substance of the parent–child relationship as we have seen it played out in
the realm of food. Food is a suitable form of material culture for examining
children, mothers and commercial life precisely because of its ubiquity and
the way it thereby brings up issues of taste, desire, choice, personhood and
authority. Food situates the child as both subject and object – as a person or
being with likes and dislikes, yet as a thing to be nourished. Feeding or pro-
viding food for a child addresses both want and need, fusing them together in
the first instance practically and pragmatically in such a seamless way that,
for some, these never become disentangled. Except in dire circumstances, a
mother or parent cannot readily distinguish ‘want’ from ‘need’ and is thereby
always intuiting and feeding both.
The mothers’ narratives demonstrate how neither children’s ‘agency’ nor
commercial goods and their ‘messages’ reside unfettered in the daily life of
the households profiled. A mother’s labor, I would argue, unavoidably deals
with the creation and co-creation of meaning – of goods generally, and of
food specifically. Food is never simply food – i.e. unmarked and self-evident.
Mothers and children fight about, negotiate, bargain, sneak and enjoy the
various meanings of food and meals and, in so doing, enact their relation-
ships. Foodstuffs are vehicles for the sorting and discerning of these social
relationships – relationships of super- and subordination, of caring and sharing
(see Kaplan, 2000).
The meanings of food arise also from the world of commerce and media.
Licensed characters and branded food items figure significantly in some of
the fights and dynamics in the supermarket and at the dinner table reported by
these mothers. Mary was particularly keen on manipulating the commercial
meanings of some food so as to cajole her children into eating ‘healthy’. It is
important, however, for social researchers to go beyond the lure of focusing
on brand names and media characters as definitive of what is ‘commercial’
so as to recognize the everyday decisions regarding the material and semantic
provisioning of foodstuffs in the course of ordinary consumption (Gronow
and Warde, 2001).
Commercial meaning here extends beyond the acts of shopping and
purchasing per se and into the ways in which mothers manage food and the
constitution of meals. Integral to mother–child negotiations about good or
bad, healthy or unhealthy, proper or improper foods are the ever-present
commercial definitions of foodstuffs, some of which might appear relatively
benign, like a particular brand of hotdog. Yet, mothers report how foods
commercially identified for children are often recognized by children as
culturally belonging to them (e.g. Lunchables, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese).
The ‘kids’ foods’ often conflict with maternal notions of healthy eating and
of appropriateness for a ‘meal’. The culture of consumption of course does
not stop at the threshold of the home – and ‘the home’ is not necessarily
antithetical to this culture – but continues to provide fodder for the meaning-
making and relationship-constructing practices therein.
Hence, even seemingly ‘non-commercial’ things like ‘vegetables’ or
‘lunch meat’, in the generic (i.e. not branded), acquire their symbolism and
are fought over precisely because they are not Easy Mac or Lunchables
brands, and are seen as ‘adult’ food to the children. Mothers and children
forge the meanings of food and meals here in a system of contrasts (Barthes,
1997; Douglas, 1997). Mary’s children didn’t want ‘their’ hamburgers, only
McDonald’s. Commerce in this way provides not only direct and explicit
meaning and definition to foods, but also forms the context wherein meanings
and definitions become activated. DeVault’s insight about the ubiquity of
provisioning practices should neither be lost in the sea of brands and com-
mercial images nor be ignored and thought inconsequential because of their
The narratives offered by these four mothers may, as circumscribed as
they are, nevertheless offer insights about key aspects regarding the everyday
– indeed every-hour – lives of mothers. In looking at these self-descriptions
and self-understandings, it makes sense to approach commerce, mothering,
caring, sentiment and children as ingredients that blend together in various
quantities, qualities, priorities and intensities. Not all caring has a commercial
component but neither is it severely segregated from things – goods, images,
meanings – made available through market means. When seeking to grasp
these complex interrelations, I hope this article makes clear, one must work
from the social nexus – comprised of acting and interacting parents and chil-
dren – where social meaning is made, remade and put into practice.
This research was made possible by a grant from the University of Illinois Research Board
(2005–6) and by in-residence support from the ESRC Cultures of Consumption Programme,
Birkbeck College, University of London in spring 2007. I thank the anonymous reviewers for
helpful comments on an earlier draft.
This paper was accepted for publication before the author was invited to be co-editor of
Childhood (The Editors).
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women (DeVault, 1991: 36) but does not elaborate except to imply that they function as propa-
ganda. In only one instance could I find an interviewee making reference to popular media. One
woman remarked that The Waltons television show (of the 1970s) was an ideal image of a ‘good
household’ that she did not achieve (DeVault, 1991: 49, 91).
COOK: SEMANTIC PROVISIONING OF CHILDREN’S FOOD
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