Designing to support the exchange of food and eating practices between remote, inter-generational family members

Aswati Panicker
Oct 16, 2020 · 8 min read

Note: This article was co-authored by Aswati Panicker, Kavya Basu, and Christina Chung and is a summary of our research paper “Changing Roles and Contexts: Symbolic Interactionism in the Sharing of Food and Eating Practices between Remote, Intergenerational Family Members”. This work will be presented at the upcoming CSCW 2020 conference.

Many adults live alone or apart from their families and talk about their eating experiences with each other to stay in touch. How can we leverage conversations about food to keep long-distance family members connected?

Image depicts remote, family members connecting through food related conversations
Image depicts remote, family members connecting through food related conversations

As family members increasingly live apart from each other — with 60% of adults living away from their parents — there is a growing interest in designing technologies to support long-distance communication. Additionally, food and eating habits are a frequent topic of communication amongst family members. We wanted to study how we can design technologies to mediate the sharing of food and eating-related behaviors. This can be a powerful way to foster connections amongst remote family members.

We began our study in 2019 with a focus on families living apart. This topic became unfortunately relevant with the arrival of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, which left many people suddenly separated from their family members, friends, and partners.

We conducted an interview study to directly hear stories from remote family members.

Recruitment was primarily through handouts, flyers, and mailing lists associated with Indiana University and local communities. We ended up interviewing a total of 27 participants who had family members living apart from them. Of the 27 participants,18 were older parents and the remaining 9 were adult children.

Interviews revealed emergent themes that were reflective of family roles, eating patterns, health tracking, communication challenges, etc.

A snapshot of our first level of analysis using Affinity Mapping

Symbolic Interactionism: How do family members construct roles and adapt to changing situations?

Symbolic Interactionism is a sociological theory that has been used in family research.

  • Symbolic Interactionism brings in the notion that “shared meanings” within a family are shaped by roles, rituals, and social interactions between the family members.
  • Family members take on different roles (parental, spousal, etc.) based on the contexts and situations that come with each stage of their life. The idea of studying roles is particularly relevant in family studies because family members build and reinforce their emotional bonds through rituals, such as family meals and holidays.
  • Family members can face role conflict when taking on multiple roles and role strain when unable to meet role expectations.

Our findings through the lens of Symbolic Interactionism:

Families talk about food to maintain awareness of each others’ routines after changes in living situations and roles.

Image depicts mother and daughter talking about what they ate and sharing their daily routine
Image depicts mother and daughter talking about what they ate and sharing their daily routine
[We talked about] what we might make for dinner…we talk to each other about how we’re feeling, if we feel healthy or sick. What we ate for breakfast.” (C03)

Participant C03 and her mother became long-distanced after C03 moved away for college. Despite sharing a close relationship, C03 felt a lack of awareness about her mother’s general health as she no longer had the same visibility into her mother’s daily routine as she did when they were living together. Therefore, she often brought up food-related questions to understand how her mother is doing. Applying the lens of Symbolic Interactionism, C03’s example shows that participants used their conversations to associate meaning (e.g., what is healthy) to different contexts and situations (e.g., living together vs. apart).

Families reminisce about past shared experiences to remain connected in new living contexts.

Image depicts father and son reminiscing about a shared restaurant experience
Image depicts father and son reminiscing about a shared restaurant experience
“There’s one restaurant, new in this area. And it’s not very big. It’s just the other day we talked about a few of the dishes that they serve there. And how enjoyable it was.” (C13)

Participant C13 has been living away from his father and children for many years. He described how conversations with his family involved talking about past memories of sharing food and eating at restaurants. This nostalgic sharing keeps their family connected and also gives them an opportunity to build new experiences surrounding food. C13’s experience is an example of how individuals derive meaning from memories and either retain that knowledge or form new negotiated meanings like described in Symbolic Interactionism theory. By reminiscing about their past experiences with their families, participants can uphold their shared meanings.

Families take responsibility for healthy eating due to changes in roles or contexts.

Image depicts mother and daughter discussing granddaughter’s eating habits
Image depicts mother and daughter discussing granddaughter’s eating habits
“Now having a two-year-old [granddaughter] in the picture. We do actually talk a fair bit about [healthy eating]. I want my granddaughter to learn how to live in a well-balanced world of diet and not just nuggets.” (P20)

Participant P20 described how becoming a grandmother has prompted her to talk more about healthy eating with her daughter. This shift in family roles created a sense of responsibility in her to ensure that everyone stays healthy.

Although these roles transition is common in families, in some cases, participants struggled with this kind of role transitioning and experienced role conflict while trying to have such conversations. This was especially true when family members had differing expectations of what it means to be healthy. As Symbolic Interactionism states, the need to take on new roles prompted interactions (i.e., conversations about healthy eating) among participants and their family members. However, participants also struggled with these transitions and experienced conflicts while trying to have conversations based on their new perceived responsibilities and roles.

Family food preparer is a gendered role

Image depicts mother prepping meals and managing the kitchen for her family
Image depicts mother prepping meals and managing the kitchen for her family
“As the mother, the wife, and the person who actually manages the kitchen and cook, I think I’m the only person amongst the four [in the family] who really gives as much thought to food and about what’s going on inside my body. I, for a fact, know that my husband doesn’t think about it at all. He just loves good food so he will eat wherever he gets it.” (P11)

Traditionally, Mothers have been responsible for meal preparation and cooking for the entire family. This was reflected in how P11 felt about her family’s mindset towards cooking and meal preparation.

Symbolic interactionism demonstrates that individuals often identify with their roles according to societal meanings, and tensions may arise when those roles were altered due to a change in living contexts. In our study, female participants often felt the responsibility to take care of the family and ensure healthy eating conversations and practices, even with family members no longer living in the same household. However, some experienced role strain when they did not have control over contexts surrounding eating behavior and practices and therefore could not perform these roles.

Design considerations for supporting dynamic roles and contexts:

1. Support for expectations, conflicts, and transitions in family roles

Image depicts the changes in diet through different life stages
Image depicts the changes in diet through different life stages

Future systems could support family members adjust to role transitions and help them explicitly communicate role expectations as well as manage any resulting tensions. For example, in the case of participant P20, she wanted to be more involved in her granddaughter’s eating without interfering with her daughter’s parenting style. As people often use the documentation (e.g., photos) of life stages to identify personal transitions, systems could encourage the sharing of these transitions with their family members. In this instance, a context-based system could encourage P20’s daughter to share her transitional experiences with P20 — such as the change from preparing food for herself as a young adult to preparing food for her child as a mother. It could also document her meal preparation decisions or eating choices through these stages. This could potentially help each family member identify transitions in familial roles and also help them work through expectations collaboratively.

2. Family journeys

Image depicts a family’s health journey and how everyone can be involved in some form
Image depicts a family’s health journey and how everyone can be involved in some form

Design can be used to support a family’s continuous journey instead of just episodic moments. For example, systems could prepare family members for the arrival of a child or to support each other after the diagnosis of a health condition. Also, incorporating a sense of roles into this design and allowing those roles to change over time can help manage changes in responsibility and expectations more smoothly.

3. Family collaborative technologies

To read more, please see our paper from the Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (CSCW). If you want to know more about the research or share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you! Please contact apanicke@iu.edu (Aswati Panicker), kavbasu@iu.edu (Kavya Basu), or cfchung@iu.edu (Christina Chung).

Credits: Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Health and HCI

Research and musings from the Proactive Health Lab at the Indiana University School of Informatics.

Health and HCI

This is the blog for the Proactive Health Lab (https://prohealth.luddy.indiana.edu/), at Indiana University. Here we share our latest work and thoughts on people, technology, health and wellbeing.

Aswati Panicker

Written by

PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington. Interested in designing for health & wellness using human centered methods.

Health and HCI

This is the blog for the Proactive Health Lab (https://prohealth.luddy.indiana.edu/), at Indiana University. Here we share our latest work and thoughts on people, technology, health and wellbeing.