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Let Them Eat Cake: Socioeconomic Status and Caregiver Indulgence of Children’s Food and Drink Requests

Food Systems and Health

ISBN: 978-1-78635-092-3, eISBN: 978-1-78635-091-6

Publication date: 29 June 2017



Only a handful of studies have examined social interactions between parents and children around food choice, though these have important implications for health. Moreover, we know very little about how socioeconomic status might influence these exchanges, including the nature and outcomes of children’s requests for specific foods and drinks.


Data are from a survey of 401 families with children ages 2-17. Using formal mediation models to decompose direct and indirect effects, we test three potential mechanisms of socioeconomic differences in caregivers’ propensity to indulge children’s requests for specific foods or drinks: (1) Children’s food-seeking behaviors; (2) Caregivers’ nutritional attitudes and values; and (3) Caregiver social control and monitoring of children’s diets. We also present a symbolic indulgence explanation, which is not empirically testable using our data, but is consistent with qualitative evidence (Pugh, 2009).


We find significant SES differences in the frequency and nature of children’s requests for foods, nutritional attitudes and values, and opportunities for caregiver monitoring of children’s eating habits, but these mechanisms explain little of the association between socioeconomic status and caregiver responses.

Research Limitations/implications

Limitations of this study include the non-probability sample and the inability to demonstrate the meaning and intention underlying SES effects. Nonetheless, our findings provide information about how SES does and does not influence parent-child interactions around food choice, which has important implications for developing effective policies and interventions for improving children’s diets.


In light of null findings regarding alternative explanations, children’s requests for unhealthy food and parents’ willingness to grant them may be related to cultural practices around parenting that differ by social class. Consequently, culture may be an important yet under-emphasized mechanism contributing to socioeconomic disparities in children’s dietary habits and health.




The authors are grateful for funding to conduct this research from the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and from the Indiana University Office of the Vice Provost for Research through a the Collaborative Research and Creative Activity Fund.


Perry, B.L. and McCrory Calarco, J. (2017), "Let Them Eat Cake: Socioeconomic Status and Caregiver Indulgence of Children’s Food and Drink Requests", Food Systems and Health (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 18), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 121-146.



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