Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Health Promotion, Education and Behavior

First Advisor

Edward A. Frongillo


Children’s nutrition is largely determined by the food choices their primary caregivers make. Food choice for children has important implications for nutrition, development, and the dietary habits and preferences that are formed during early life food exposure. Little is known about the food environments in which food choices are made and the role of social networks in maternal food choice during habit- and preference-forming years in contexts undergoing nutrition transitions and facing the double burden of malnutrition. The overall objective of this study was to gain an indepth understanding about how mothers, as primary caregivers, make food choices for their children ages 1 to 5 years old in rural Mexico within their food environment and their social context. This objective was addressed in two specific aims. The first aim was to understand how mothers navigate their local food environment and what drives their acquisition. The second aim was to examine the role of mothers’ social networks in the food choices that mothers make for their children.

In-depth interviews with 46 participants and market observations at 12 food sources were conducted in three rural communities between November and December 2016. The interviews inquired about mothers’ experiences, knowledge, and meanings related to child feeding and their food acquisition using three listings (i.e., foods at home, sources from which foods were acquired, and projected food purchase). These listings were used to conduct market observations at different food sources from which mothers acquired foods. The interviews also inquired about local beliefs about child feeding, and the individuals with whom mothers interacted and conversed about food and child feeding. All interviews were conducted in Spanish, audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and verified for quality. All market observations recorded field notes following each site visit. The aims were analyzed separately using the constant comparative method.

For the first aim, mothers portrayed a complex food environment consisting of retail, pantry programs, production, wild sources, and social ties. Access to these food sources depended on characteristics about the food sources and mothers’ personal conditions. Mothers valued that their children were well-nourished and that the diets they provided were conducive to that. While mothers valued providing nourishing diets that could ensure adequate growth and development, they also valued responding to children’s food preferences and requests. Mothers appraised what they could acquire from each food source, mitigated financial constraints by capitalizing on their time, and balanced child-centered values to provide nourishing diets and respond to food preferences.

For the second aim, the social context emerged as five interconnected networks. These networks were household family, non-household family, community, children’s initial school, and health and pantry personnel. Each network had functions in food choice that ranged from shared food decision-making in the household family network to imparting formal dietary guidance in the health and pantry program personnel network. Across the networks, professionals, participants’ mothers and mothers-in-law, community senior women, and other women with children emerged as prominent figures whom mothers would turn to for child-feeding advice. These findings provide empirical evidence that social networks, as part of system of interconnected networks, have vital functions in establishing norms for food choices made for children.


© 2020, Ligia Ivette Reyes