“It’s made me realise the kids tend to eat the same sorts of things, day in, day out”: Using audio-diaries to understand family food practices

PictureEveryday food practices are important in relation to a range of public health issues, but it often proves difficult to get families to reflect on these.

By Sarah MacDonald

Increasing concern about children’s dietary practices, linked to child development, obesity and future health status, has highlighted the need to understand more about the lived experiences of family food practices. However, as these are part of the mundane aspects of daily life, researchers have struggled to find ways of encouraging participants to reflect on this.  

Through their ability to capture processes that are often taken for granted, diaries offer great potential for the study of family food practices. In particular, audio rather than written diaries provide an accessible medium for capturing intimate stories about daily experiences.

Diaries and interviews

In my PhD research, I used audio diaries in combination with interviews to understand how food and eating gets done in families with children aged six to eleven years, and how this interacts with the children’s experiences in primary school.

Following an initial interview with parents and children, each family was asked  to record an overview of their daily food practices at the end of each day, for one week. Each family was provided with an audio-recorder, cassettes and suggestions about what to include (such as anything they enjoyed or disliked about food that day, and how food fitted in with other activities). Participants were given the option of completing written diaries if they preferred.

The diaries were collected and analysed and each was used as a basis for a follow-up interview. During these, participants were invited to expand on topics discussed in their diaries, and were asked about the meanings of events, how typical these events were of their normal lives, and connections between them.

Diaries as a participant-led research tool

Diaries in general have proved to be useful in promoting researcher-participant collaboration (see for example Elliott, 1997; Spowart 2008). In my research, families were free to conduct the diaries however they wanted without any input from the researcher, apart from a text message reminder at the start of the diary week. Most families chose to provide individual narratives at the end of each day and ten out of 32 families opted for a written diary format, as they felt nervous speaking into a recorder.  One family chose to interview each other, which produced interesting interactional data highlighting different concepts used by different family members:

                                                Mum: And any snacks today?

                                                Bobbie*: Well there was a sandwich?

                                                Mum: Yes, but that was because you didn’t have any dinner wasn’t it?

                                                Bobbie: I know

                                                Mum: So it wasn’t really a snack it was more of a second dinner                                                    
                                                wasn’t it?

                                                Child: Yes

 Audio-diaries have been shown to have particular appeal with children and young people because of the novelty and ‘fun factor’, and the way in which it allows them to take charge of the process. In my research, using the diaries to guide the follow-up interviews allowed these to become more personalised and participant-led than the initial interviews had been.

Reflecting on diary week

Participants reported that the process of diary completion and self-reflection was useful, and explained how it made taken-for-granted practices more visible and open to change:

                                            Mum: Having done this it’s made me realise the kids tend to eat the same sorts of things, day in,                                             day out and maybe need a little bit more variety.

The participant-led nature of the diaries also proved useful in raising potentially difficult issues; if an issue was introduced by the participant in the diary, this legitimised it being brought up in the follow-up interview. In the Jenkins family, for example, the mother talked about the poor quality food the children ate when they were with their father. This meant that the different food practices shaped by these separate family arrangements, something that might not have otherwise been raised, could be explored in more detail in the follow-up.

Polished versus more candid accounts

Some diaries were produced with a positive spin, invoking notions of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing. One mother talked about being organised in order to achieve healthy food practices:

            “I got my Weight Watchers recipe books out and I looked for things to make for next week to plan
            so when I went shopping I knew exactly what I needed to get.”

Other families presented more candid, less polished accounts of their family practices. In the Edmunds family, the mother reflected on a busy weekend with her son playing in a rugby tournament, followed by a birthday party:

              “It’s been a bit of a manic weekend. We’ve been away with Ellis playing rugby and I forgot to take the tape                   recorder with me. Saturday, yesterday, the kids had toast for breakfast because we were travelling and basically               all day yesterday was a bit of a mish-mash of sandwiches, crisps, hot dogs and just whatever they picked up,                         whenever they picked up… And then the kids have had a birthday party since we came back this afternoon so                   again it’s been more rubbish, to be totally truthful.”

Highlighting these different accounts is not to suggest that some are more legitimate or honest than others. Instead, it shows the breadth of different data generated and reflects the different frames of reference within which the participants were working. My analysis of diary accounts has included a focus on the way in which participants presented their accounts, looking at words, phrases and concepts used. In this way the diaries have been useful for drawing out both the detail of daily routines and also the wider contexts shaping these routines.

Diaries: part of the tool-box

Using audio-diaries in my research provided an important lens into family food practices beyond what families presented through interview accounts, and added depth of understanding about the habitual nature of everyday life.

Beyond my PhD studies I would like to consider the merits of using audio-diaries alongside visual methods as part of a tool-box of mixed methods. Other researchers have shown how drawing and photoelicitation provide additional insights into mundane daily activities, especially where people may struggle about what to say, how to reflect, or how to put meanings into words.

Many thanks to my supervisors Dr Simon Murphy and Dr Eva Elliott, and to all the families who participated.

*All names have been changed.

Sarah MacDonald is a PhD student at DECIPHer, based at Cardiff University.

This study was undertaken as part of a PhD funded by a National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Doctoral Fellowship funded in Wales by the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR), at the Welsh Government.

Image of children eating:  Andrew Malone, Flickr

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