Exploring Adolescent Involvement in Home Meal Preparation

In low-income households with multiple children, older siblings may assume adult roles including primary care provider for siblings. A qualitative study was conducted to explore if these adultified roles extended to meal preparation. At the conclusion of a randomized controlled trial involving families on food assistance, if an adolescent (13-18 years) was present in the home, he or she was invited to participate in a semi-structured interview. Interviews (n= 19) were analyzed using grounded theory methodology. Seventeen adolescents reported participating in meal preparation at one of three levels of involvement. Many described a low level of assistance, whereas a few described occasionally sharing cooking responsibilities (e.g., cooking for siblings monthly while parent is at work). A few also described themselves as independent food preparers, playing a major role in meal preparation, often more so than their parents. These adolescents were independent out of family obligation and indicated that the additional responsibilities produced stress, although they were confident in their ability to cook without the assistance of an adult. They served as surrogate parents in a utilitarian manner, as their primary goal was getting everyone fed, not necessarily preparing healthy meals. They were focused on preparing foods that siblings preferred which was consistent with parental expectations. Findings suggest that the level of adolescent involvement in meal preparation varies and additional research is needed to further explore the experience of independent adolescent food preparers and the impact on dietary intake of younger siblings.