Food and eating trends in families with children in Ontario and Canada
January 12, 2021
Author: Lynn Roblin, MSc. RD
Nutrition Connections, with the support of The Helderleigh Foundation, teamed up with Ipsos, a global market research and public opinion firm, to examine food and eating trends in Ontario and Canada. The purpose was to understand the food and eating attitudes and behaviours of families with children and what drives family food choices. This information is needed to inform evidence-based policy, programming, and communication activities.
The study was based on the FIVE syndicated data collected by Ipsos Canada. This Canadian online diary gathers information daily, year-over-year, with an annual sample of 20,000 Canadians over the age of two. The data included in the Nutrition Connections report was collected for a full year ending December 2019 providing a baseline snapshot of food and eating attitudes and behaviours of children and parents prior to the onset of COVID-19. Provincial results were compared to Canadian families to see if there were any outstanding nuances for Ontario families with children.
Ontario families’ intake of the major food categories was generally aligned with other Canadian families. For example, Ontario families reported similar intakes of vegetables and fruits, meat proteins, protein alternatives, and grains as their national counterparts. In Ontario, children aged two to five reported consuming more vegetables and fruits, more protein alternatives, and less total meat protein compared to children aged six to 12 and children aged 13 to 17. Ontario families reported consuming less caffeinated beverages and slightly more fruit and dairy beverages compared to national families. Younger children reported consuming more dairy beverages compared to children over the age of 6. Fruit beverage consumption was reported to be highest at breakfast for children ages 6 to 12. The top reported snacks for Ontario families were sugary and salty snacks, followed by vegetables and fruit, grains and protein alternatives. Sugary snack consumption was highest for children ages 2 to 5 at dinnertime.
In the Nutrition Connections report, 65% of Ontario families reported consuming meals and snacks most often at home in 2019. Ontario families also reported consuming food away from home more often than Canadian families (35 % vs. 27%). During the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians were eating more at home, eating out less, and ordering more food online (e.g., groceries, meal kits, take-out/delivery)1,2,3,4. It will be interesting to see whether families will revert to pre-COVID eating out patterns when the pandemic is over.
More Ontario families reported eating together compared to Canadian families (52% vs. 47%). However, only 43% of Ontario families reported consuming meals and snacks at the kitchen or dining room table, while over one-third reported eating in the family room or in front of the television. Use of screens at mealtime was reported to be highest among children ages two to five, which is concerning as eating while watching TV or using screens can cause distracted eating and is linked with poor food and beverage choices5,6. Eating together is important as this is when families connect and where parents can be positive role models for healthy eating7. Eating as a family and away from TV and screens is associated with eating more vegetables and fruit and less sugary beverages6,8.
Cooking from scratch was reported to be popular among Ontario families with parents of children aged two to five reporting the highest rate of scratch cooking. Families with older children reported cooking from scratch less and relying more on ready-made ingredients, partially prepared meals, and meal kits. Home prepared meals can potentially be healthier meals9 and can provide opportunities for kids to learn how to cook from scratch compared to pre-prepared meals.
Most Ontario families reported spending under 30 minutes for meal preparation activities. Families with older children ages 13-17 were more likely to report spending under 15 minutes to prepare meals, compared to families with younger children. During the COVID-19 pandemic cooking from scratch and partially from scratch meals increased, possibly out of necessity (e.g., fewer shopping trips) or because parents were working from home and had children at home for more meals due to school cancellations. While the media reported on a surge in baking10 and cooking with children11 in March and April 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic, it will be interesting to see if cooking meals from scratch or partially from scratch will change in the future and if this will involve healthier choices for families.
The Nutrition Connections report provides some insights as to what influences parents food choices. For example, Ontario families reported reading the Nutrition Facts table and ingredients list on products. Parents were most interested in labels indicating “made in Canada” and “no artificial flavours or preservatives” and certifications like organic/free range and non-GMO. The top ranked motivations for Ontario parents when choosing food for their family were: satisfies hunger, good for my family, good value for money, easy to prepare/little planning, comforting and tasty.
When searching for food and nutrition information, about half of Ontario and Canadian families reported doing so online, however, it is hard to know what was accessed and whether the information was credible. A previous Ipsos study of Canadian households with children indicated parents sought information about foods and beverages online through company websites (32.0%), social media (25.0%), and third-party websites or blogs (21.0%)12. Nutrition information and misinformation can be spread through many of these channels including blogs from professionals, pseudo-professionals and laypersons. Given the prevalence of technology and online access, especially among younger generations, it is important to be aware of the information being communicated to parents and children. Most concerning is the influence of food and beverage marketers targeting children via TV, computers and smartphones, mostly to advertise food and beverages that are considered unhealthy13,14. Today, processed foods high in salt, sugar or fat, account for over half of the calories that Canadians consume15,16.
A variety of opportunities to inform and support Ontario families in selecting healthy foods and adopting healthy eating behaviours can be gleaned from this study. For more information and to get the full results of the report click here.
- Ipsos Food Service Monitor, August 2020.
- Ipsos. Canada Chats 2021 Trends Report Overview. December 2020.
- Charlebois S. Restaurants Post COVID-19. Agri-Food Analytics Lab. June 9, 2020. Available online.
- Charlebois S. COVID-19 Online Food Activity. Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Nov 12, 2020. Available online.
- Health Canada, Canada’s Food Guide, Be Mindful of Your Eating Habits. Available online.
- Avery A, Anderson C & Mccullough F. Associations between children’s diet quality and watching television during meal or snack consumption: A systematic review. Maternal and Child Nutrition. 2017;13-4 DOI.
- Jones BL. Making time for family meals: Parental influences, home eating environments, barriers and protective factors. Physiology & behavior. 2018 Sep 1;193:248-51.
- Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, Rockett HRH, Camargo CA, Field AE, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med. 2000;Mar;9(3):235-40. DOI.
- Wolfson, J., Leung, C., & Richardson, C. (2020). More frequent cooking at home is associated with higher Healthy Eating Index-2015 score. Public Health Nutrition, 23(13), 2384-2394. DOI
- CBC. Here’s why everyone you know is baking bread in quarantine. April 25, 2020. Available online
- Huffington Post. Quarantine cooking gives recipes to fuel Canadians through self-isolation. March 27, 2020. Available online.
- Ipsos. 2018 Custom CHATS Omnibus
- Potvin Kent M, Pauzé E. The frequency and healthfulness of food and beverages advertised on adolescents’ preferred web sites in Canada. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2018;63(1):102–7. DOI
- Potvin Kent M, Pauzé E, Roy E-A, Billy ND, Czoli C. Children and adolescents’ exposure to food and beverage marketing in social media apps. Pediatric Obesity. 2019;14(6). DOI
- Moubarac JC. Ultra-processed foods in Canada: Consumption, impact on diet quality and policy implications. Montreal: TRANSNUT, University of Montreal; 2017. Available online.
- Nardocci M, Polsky J, Moubarac JC. How ultra-processed foods affect health in Canada. Report prepared for Heart and Stroke. Montréal: TRANSNUT, Department of Nutrition, University of Montreal; June 2019. Available online.