Study finds three-quarters of women are households' chief cook and food shopper

December 11, 2006

Three-quarters of women still do most of the cooking and food shopping for their partner and family, suggests new research that will help health promotion policies to be targeted more effectively

The study of nearly 200 British men and women in their early 30s found that, although half of the women worked full time, they still shouldered most of the responsibility for making sure their household was fed.

The rise of celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver has made cooking more acceptable a pastime to the modern man, say researchers from Newcastle University's Human Nutrition Research Centre, who carried out the study.

But whereas some of the men surveyed saw cooking as a hobby and a chance to be creative, women had a more practical approach and were largely relied upon to do the day-to-day cooking and shopping tasks.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the British Food Journal. The results, which highlight how important women continue to be in influencing food choices, could help shape health intervention policies.

Lead author, Dr Amelia Lake, a Newcastle University research fellow, commented: "Women have made great progress in terms of equal opportunities over the last few decades so it surprised us to find that many women, even in this relatively young age group, assumed the traditional female role of chief cook and food shopper.

"Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have helped change the image of cooking as 'women's work' and many cook books are aimed at men. Yet our research suggested men like to use cooking as a chance to show off occasionally, while women are left with the day-to-day chores.

"Some of the men we surveyed viewed cooking as more of a hobby - and indeed it's usual to find meals like barbeques, Sunday lunches and speciality dishes like curries are a man's culinary showpieces."

Of the 198 study participants from a sample based in Northumberland, North East England, 79 per cent were married or co-habiting. Among the women, 79 per cent were mainly responsible for their household's food shopping and 72 per cent were mainly responsible for preparing and cooking food.

The reasons given for this ranged from women having more time to shop and cook if they worked part-time to the belief that women made healthier food choices. Some women said they did the shopping because they thought could do it faster than their partner, who was often tempted by 'unnecessary treats'.

One-quarter of the women surveyed said they were responsible for food shopping and preparation because they were more skilled than their partners in planning, budgeting, preparing and knowing their family's food preferences.

Dr Lake, a registered dietitian, said the findings highlighted the importance of practical cooking lessons in schools as a way towards changing traditional family dynamics: "One reason for our findings could be that many of our study participants grew up in households that were traditionally structured, with their mothers in charge of most domestic duties. With this as their key reference point, our study couples perhaps easily conformed to gender stereotypes.

Dr Lake added: "This work shows how important it is to consider the role of women when developing health intervention policies. Health professionals should also consider this when giving advice on healthy lifestyles and eating. For instance, there's no point solely advising a diabetic male on how to structure his diet when he isn't doing the food shopping or cooking - you need to see his wife, too!"

* please note that we cannot offer further interviews with the case study due to lack of availability.

STUDY participant Neil Nevens and his wife, Sharon, admit they are a "traditional" couple when it comes to household chores.

The pair both work full time as police officers but it's Sharon who does the bulk of the shopping and cooking in the household and Neil helps out occasionally.

Sharon tends to do a weekly shop at the supermarket then may make smaller purchases at local shops such as the butchers.

Neil's main chores are those he calls the "traditionally male" jobs such as gardening and cutting the grass, odd fix-it jobs around the house and putting out the bins for collection.

Neil, 38, and Sharon, 37, grew up in Northumberland and still live there with their two children, Lucy, six, and Grace, four.

Neil said: "I don't mind shopping but Sharon has taken it on as one of her main responsibilities.

"I suppose you could say we are quite traditional and as the mother of the house Sharon likes to make sure that the children get the right things to eat to remain fit and healthy.

"Sharon has a more practical approach to shopping and she is very good at planning ahead and thinking about what ingredients we need for our meals.

"I'm prone to buying treats - I'd buy the kids cakes or a big packet of chocolate buttons whereas Sharon's more likely to buy them healthy snacks like fruit and yoghurts."

Sharon said: "Neil will do the shopping but I always give him a list so he knows what to get. Otherwise I never know what he will come back with!

"I like to buy healthy food that will last us for meals throughout the week. As a mum it's very important for me to make sure that the family eats healthily, and Neil has high cholesterol so he needs to watch what he eats.

"Both the children have packed lunches and I like to buy them healthy, tasty snacks for them to eat.

"I'm very concerned that they get their five portions of fruit and vegetables every day and I make sure we are well stocked up with this type of food.

" Every day I like to cook a dinner with vegetables - a typical meal would be roast meat with vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas and potatoes, and we all really enjoy it.

"I don't mind doing the shopping or the cooking, and Neil does work hard doing other jobs around the house that I wouldn't tend to do."

Newcastle University

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