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Ann Mari Sellerberg

Ann Mari Sellerberg

Professor emerita

Ann Mari Sellerberg

En het potatis. Om mat och måltider i barn- och tonårsfamiljer


  • Ann Mari Sellerberg

Summary, in English

A hot potato: food and meals in families with small children and teenagers.

Introduction, with aims and hypothesis

The project ‘Konsumenters problemlösningar på livsmedelsmarknadens nya arenor. Matinspiration under tidspress’ [‘Consumers’ problem-solving/solution to the food market’s new arenas: food inspiration against the clock’] initially addressed the following issue: shopping for food and planning the day’s meals are ongoing, problem-solving processes, and those who are responsible need ideas, if always innovative or dramatic, yet some form of inspiration to ‘effect’ a meal. The object of our study is consumers’ solutions to the question of mealtimes, and what circumstances inform those solutions. Our working hypothesis reflects the discrepancy between what the individuals responsible want to create with the food they prepare for their families, and the practical conditions (above all time) that dictate their choices. Our aim has been to take this and express it more precisely with the help of interviews: is there truly a discrepancy, and in which case, how is it handled? The survey was primarily conducted by means of interviews. Stine Thorsted and Terese Anving were employed by the project: in 2005 Thorsted defended her thesis ‘IT-retorik og Hverdagsliv. Et studie af fødevarehandel over Internet’ [‘IT rhetoric and everyday life: a study of internet grocery shopping’]; and Anving was employed from 15 February 2006 as a postgraduate student within the project.

There were three theoretical lines of approach (full references are given below). Simmel’s work on the sociology of meals, Soziologie der Mahlzeit (1910; in English 1994), the classic work on the subject, has a clear point: it is the act of eating together that constitutes a meal. In all other circumstances, it is no longer a question of the specific social phenomenon, ‘a meal’. During the meal, an ‘intersection’ fundamental to humankind ‘is exercised’, in what Simmel calls the social and the individual. The tastes of the individual are held in check. They must be canalised socially. Douglas emphasises that a meal differs from other food-related activities such as ‘a snack’ or ‘coffee’, since a meal ‘is distinguished by having some kind of structured format’. Julier takes Douglas’ work a step further, arguing that different genres of meals have different structures and formats. Julier is concerned with how these genres are created, and the social relationships associated with the different formats.

Douglas, M. (1972) ‘Deciphering a Meal’. Daedalus 101 (1):61-82

Julier, A.P. (2002) ‘Feeding Friends and Others: Boundaries of Intimacy and Distance in Sociable Meals’. Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 63(6):2378-A, December.

Simmel, G. (1994) ‘The Sociology of the Meal’. Food and Foodways 5:345-350.

Method and results

A study was conducted of sixty families, some with small children, some with teenaged children. Three different methods were used to obtain a data on their approach to meals: interviews, focus groups, and walk-alongs.

The field survey of the sixty families has provided many exciting observations to develop with further research. The chapter headings under which the results are presented in the project report are as follows: ‘Levels and genres, and work creating different meals’ (Chapter 2); ‘Informal education during mealtimes’ (Chapter 3); ‘Centripetal forces, with complications’ (Chapter 4); and ‘Everyday life unseen’ (Chapter 5).

Those who were responsible for family meals often nursed several conflicting ambitions that they wished to realise through food. They wanted to strike what they saw as an “adequate” level during the week: meals should place reasonable demands in terms of work, time, money, and interest, and up to a point should suit the various tastes of the family. Thus, weekday meals differed from the weekend’s. A particular attitude emerged amongst the interviewees, one that might best be termed the time-effective glance. The dishes to be served, the ingredients, the various stages of preparing a meal and tidying up afterwards, all are subject to this time-effective glance. In each case, the time-effective glance determined whether they would fit into the family’s weekday routine. The interviewees’ descriptions refer to intricate schedules to be synchronised, juggling work with collecting from nursery school and children’s bedtimes, and so on. Hunger and low blood sugar were things that they had to plan to cope with. Despite their best efforts, all the families faced hectic ‘hot spots’, particularly sensitive moments when hunger, bedtime, training, cooking, and shopping “pile up on top of each other”.

The report also addresses the interest the interviewees showed in using meals to instruct their children. They want to teach them what wholesome – and unwholesome - food is; they expect the children to learn to differentiate between weekday and weekend, and what is expected of them at different kinds of meals. Above all, they want to teach their children and teenagers “this is how you should eat”. In the midst of all this edification, there is an intrinsic conflict, however, since the interviewees want to instil the idea of family-specific food and teach the young how to eat in society at large. It is not certain that the two ways of eating are one and the same. Clearly there is a strong integrative impulse associated with food. The immigrant families interviewed often complained that both young children and teenagers preferred Swedish dishes, above all what they termed “Swedish fast food”. Another clash (and another wider integration problem) emerged from the heated discussion about double dishes. The interviewees generally want all family members to enjoy the food on offer; on the other hand, they are definite that the young have learn to keep their individual tastes in check. Many of the interviewees were absolutely clear about the ambitions they vested in meals. It was these same ambitions and imaginings that prompted the sense of inadequacy that was also much in evidence in the interviews.

Concluding remarks, as presented in the report’s ‘Huvudresultat’ [Main results].

Where we can venture a conclusion, it is evident that the interviewees expected a great deal of family meals. The interviews with the sixty people responsible for family meals, almost all of them women, give a palpable sense of their dreams, desires, needs, and ambitions, but also of the sheer amount of self-criticism, guilt, and weariness.


  • Sociologi






Department of Sociology, Lund University, Research Report




[Publisher information missing]


  • Sociology (excluding Social Work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology)


  • family
  • everyday life
  • food
  • sociologi
  • sociology



Report number



  • Sociology of Everyday Life


  • ISBN: 91-7267-268-4