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Fostering social relationships through food rituals in a New Zealand school

Eva Neely (School of Public Health, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)
Mat Walton (School of Public Health, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)
Christine Stephens (School of Psychology, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

Health Education

ISSN: 0965-4283

Article publication date: 1 August 2016




Food practices, including associated routines, rituals, and habits, are an unexplored area in school health promotion. The purpose of this paper is to fill this gap through exploring how food rituals act as vehicles for young people to establish, maintain, and strengthen social relationships.


Through an ethnographic inquiry, including observations and interviews with teachers and 16-18 years old students in New Zealand, everyday practices were explored in-depth across one school year.


The findings include three food rituals as significant for young people in managing their social relationships, including the lunch walk, ritualised sharing, and gifting food. The findings highlight the importance of everyday food rituals for young people’s social relationships. For instance, gifting cake mediated care to friends, showed trust in the relationship, and allowed to reciprocate; the lunch walk encouraged social interaction and was a means by which young people could integrate into a new group; and ritualised sharing food involved negotiating friendship boundaries.

Research limitations/implications

The study is exploratory with findings reported from one school. Further research exploring how young people use food rituals in their everyday lives for managing social relationships is needed.


A focus on social relationships in settings such as schools could broaden the scope of nutrition promotion to promote health in physical, mental, and social dimensions. Implications for school health promotion are discussed.



Neely, E., Walton, M. and Stephens, C. (2016), "Fostering social relationships through food rituals in a New Zealand school", Health Education, Vol. 116 No. 5, pp. 434-448.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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