Time poverty and healthy eating – reflections from research with British South Asian mothers

Image of a woman at an outdoor food market

Photo credit: Punita Chowbey

Research shows demands of work have an impact on food choices and create challenges for balancing family values such as closeness and personal achievement (Devine et al. 2006). What happens when one adds additional layers of ethnicity and migration into the picture? To find out, I spoke to 35 women from Gujarati and Pakistani background from four groups: homemaker (both high-income and low-income); professional/managerial; skilled/clerical/assistant; and manual employment. These mothers are both first and second-generation migrants with dependent children.

I asked what women meant by eating healthily, their healthy eating practices and their experiences of healthy eating interventions/messages. There was a marked contrast between the narratives of two groups of women in particular: high-income professional women and low-income homemakers. There were a lot of differences in their understanding/definition of healthy eating. And yet, there was little difference in their eating practices. Surprisingly, a subset of relatively time-rich but income-poor mothers reported eating more healthily than high income—but time poor—mothers.

Professional mothers often provided an expansive account of what they meant by healthy eating, which encompassed not only food categories but quality of food, manners, cuisine, and rules around eating. Their narratives suggested the symbolic value of healthy eating practices in their households, such as ideals of equality, egalitarian gender roles, intimacy between couples, and parental ideologies. For example, for some curry symbolised not only traditional ways of eating but also labour and a lack of taste for healthy and international food. Professional mothers often made references to local, fresh and organic food. Rohini, a mother from British Gujarati background and professionally employed, stated:

Probably more expensive because you’re buying fresh stuff and fresh stuff is perishable and it costs, whereas you can get a vegetarian lasagne for 99p frozen from the Tesco counter, do you see what I mean?

In contrast, low-income homemakers and those in skilled work provided a brief description of healthy eating that was often limited to the consumption of fruit and vegetables and a reduction in salt and oil.

However, professional mothers’ ability to articulate an expansive discourse about eating healthily did not necessarily translate into healthy cooking and eating practices. Time appeared to be a major factor for some high earners. As a sub-group, some mothers in demanding professions (such as consultants working in hospitals, senior academics and bankers) often reported not being able to eat healthily due to time constraints. Some mothers in highly paid employment talked of cooking as something that had to be fitted in around their work.

Kishwar, a first-generation Pakistani professional in a very demanding job, was often unable to find time to cook food for her children:

I have only recently started making chapatti, otherwise, we used to have Naan [shop bought] or pita bread. Because, my son loves chapatti, so, I have started kneading flour at home, however the chapatti turns out, I am getting better at it. So, I make these things, when I am off, or when I am feeling energetic enough to do it, around the weekend and stuff.

While working mothers from all occupational backgrounds talked about ways of eating healthily and about how work commitments often got in the way, this view was expressed especially frequently by professional mothers. Muskan, a first-generation Pakistani professional, expressed her inability to spend time in the kitchen as follows:

Last week has been a disaster, so I’m not sure if that’s a good week to talk about… but generally, yeah we would prefer that we eat food cooked at home, but then what affects is what work you are doing, how much time do you have, that kind of thing … if I am at work , when I come back at 6.30-7 in the evening , so then do I have the capacity to stand and cook, that tends to affect a bit.

Muskan further suggests the need for her to work longer hours than others to be accepted and respected due to being from a minority ethnic background.

Professional mothers often cited time as a major constraint in eating healthily, whereas low-income mothers made more references to the cost of healthy eating. They felt it was cheaper to eat in an ‘Asian way’ on a budget as this makes food last longer, and it is economical to cook one big pot for many people. Soha, a second-generation British Pakistani low-income homemaker married to a first-generation Pakistani manual worker, reported:

Healthy food is a waste of money as well isn’t it? Tuna is healthy, it’s only going to fill you up two sandwiches, yeah, and how expensive are three packets of tuna, £4?  How many sandwiches can you make? How many big families can you have?  I’ve got six people in my property living. If it’s £4 I buy £2 or £3 chicken, make a curry and fill everybody up for two days, add a few potatoes in it. I show you a 60p curry, Lehsuni curry.

Amira, a British Pakistani university educated mother in a skilled employment also reported that she only bought vegetables when they are on offer because of the cost involved, otherwise she buys from a van man who provides reasonably priced fruits and vegetables:

Healthy eating is expensive …I mean sometimes, I tend to buy fruits and vegetables [from superstores] if there is a deal …but it is expensive, we have, the vegetable and fruit van comes every Thursday, and he is quite reasonable …, so I tend to buy my fruit and vegetables from him.

Many low-income homemaker mothers spoke of several strategies they adopted to feed their family healthy meals, such as shopping around for cheaper food items, buying items on offer, cooking in bulk, and choosing dishes that are nutritious but filling and cheap.

Although time was a constraint for all mothers, low-income homemakers were able to prioritise shopping and cooking healthy meals for their family despite budgetary constraints. They often referred to their culinary skills and creativity in cooking healthy meals on a budget. This suggests a need for reconsideration of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984; Smith Maguire 2016) in healthy cooking in context of social class and ethnicity. Many mothers from both Gujarati and Pakistani backgrounds were able to cook and eat healthily because they knew how to purchase cheap and fresh food for example from a van man or food market as opposed to super store and buying groceries in bulk. They had extensive knowledge of various low budget and versatile recipes and ways to cook from scratch, and had developed relatively advanced cooking skills over the years.

Conversely, those employed in demanding professions often made reference to long working hours and a lack of energy and time for cooking. Time is often an issue with those working long hours and time scarcity has implications for food practices as shown with other populations (Blake et al. 2011). However, for the respondents in my research, there were the additional pressures of being a woman and from a racial minority, occupying higher positions. This is not surprising considering the gendered and ethnic labour market inequalities in the UK (Dale & Ahmed 2011).

This blog is based on a book chapter Healthy Eating, Social Class and Ethnicity: Exploring the Food Practices of South Asian Mothers. I’ve written about my research in The Conversation, in academic journals, and in policy papers, and shared insights from my research through wider media engagement.

Dr Punita Chowbey is a Research Fellow at the college of Health, Wellbeing and Life Sciences, Sheffield Hallam University. Taking a social justice and intersectional approach, she is interested in gender and ethnic inequalities in health and wellbeing. Her recent projects focus on: a) household food practices and she has published on healthy eating and ethnicity, social class and food practices, gender and micropolitics of food, mothering and food allergies; b.) economic justice, including publications on economic abuse patterns and strategies, employment, masculinities and violence. She is currently working on her book on gender and economic justice. She engages with media on a regular basis including The Conversation, BBC World Service, and BBC Asian Network.

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