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Negotiating Children’s Food Culture in Post-socialist Poland

Négocier la culture alimentaire enfantine dans la Pologne postsocialiste
Zofia Boni


Children’s food culture is created through their everyday practices: through negotiations at the dinner table, in school, when watching TV and through their relations with parents, grandparents, siblings and peers. Drawing on twelve months of research in Warsaw (Poland), which included ethnographic study with families and in primary schools, I argue that children’s food culture is created in opposition to adult rules, yet it also incorporates elements of adults’ food culture. In fact it is influenced by different groups of adults: parents, teachers, marketers. It consists not only of improper sweets and junk foods, often identified as the symbol of children’s food, but includes also proper meals and related norms. In this article I discuss how children’s food culture is negotiated and created through material, moral, practical and historical processes in post-socialist Poland.

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Introducing Children’s Food Culture

1Adults and children usually have different ideas of what is “proper” and “improper” food. They attach different values to it. In Poland, adults’ ideas of what is good to eat are usually influenced by the nutritional discourse. And while children often recognize what is healthy food and what is not, they relate to a different food morality. Adults and children have different food cultures. By “food culture”, I understand not only the foods consumed, but also the norms and values, meanings and practices related to these foods shared by a certain group of people in a certain historical context (Fischler 1988). Children’s food culture is not homogenous: it is filled with contradictions and tensions. To some extent, it is created in opposition to the hegemonic adult world and the dominating norms. It is created against what, how and when is eaten by adults and against their ideas of how children should eat. Yet, at the same time, children’s food culture incorporates the food culture of adults. As Allison James explains in her classic article: “There is a creative process of interdependence: children construct their own ordered system of rules by reinterpreting the social models given to them by adults. It is through this creative reordering of adult perception (…) that the social world of children generates its own system of meanings” (1979: 83).

2That is why many things perceived as inedible by adults are popular among childrenfor example extremely sweet confectionery shaped like mice or spiders; and vice versa children often perceive what adults eat as disgusting. Children’s food culture is created both by adults and children through their everyday practices: through negotiations at the dinner table, at school, when watching TV and through children’s relations with their parents, grandparents, siblings and peers. It is shaped by different groups of adults: parents, teachers, marketers; and created among children. Most of all, it is negotiated between adults and children. Building on Michel de Certeau’s practice theory and his distinction between strategies and tactics (1984), I argue that adults implement diverse strategies which have the status of the dominant order and attempt to set certain behaviors and courses of action; while children use tactics which are much more flexible and are developed to evade or negotiate strategies towards their own purposes and desires. Children’s food culture is a result of what children make of adults’ rules and strategies regarding food and eating. Children’s agency has a double meaning here (Ortner 2006). It relates to the intentionality, but is not necessarily always intentional as many social consequences are in fact unintended effects of certain actions: children do not always negotiate their food culture intentionally and purposefully. Agency is also about power and acting within the relations of social inequality, asymmetry and force. For children, exercising their agency often means engaging in resistance practices.

3What children eat is an important part of their food culture and in what follows I critically engage with the category of “children’s food” and discuss its new meanings. Children’s food culture is however created not only through what is eaten, but also through why, when, how and with whom it is eaten; it refers not only to the materiality of the eaten and not eaten foods, but also to related norms and practices. It is created and negotiated on everyday basis and influenced by what it was before. In this paper, I show how children’s food culture has changed and how it is negotiated in post-socialist Poland.


  • 1 Partly funded by the Polish National Science Centre (DEC-2012/07/N/HS3/04137). I would like to than (...)

4This article is based on the research I conducted for my PhD thesis in the Anthropology and Sociology Department, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London1. I realized 12 months of fieldwork in Warsaw from September 2012 until August 2013.

5In my research, I focus on a group of children aged between 6 and 12 years oldthe age of primary school students in Poland. My research was based on the combination of various methods and field sites. I did research with fifteen diverse families (from lower and middle classes), including interviews with mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whom I treat as separate actors (Mayall 1994; James et al. 1998). While working with children, I also used other methods such as drawing, filling vignettes, taking photographs (e.g. Christensen & James 2000). I also conducted ethnographic research in three public primary schools in Warsaw. In each of them, I spent two to two and a half months observing the school food life, talking to principals, teachers, school shop owners, cooks and children themselves. Moreover, I focused on children’s food market: I studied companies producing food addressed to and intended for children, and conducted a series of interviews with food producers and marketers.

The Category of Children’s Food

6In the literature, “children’s food” is often perceived as a recent category and refers to products designed having children in mind and marketed to them (Roos 2002; Elliott 2011). Jing (2000b: 7) for example explains that “children’s food” is a relatively new category in China. She distinguishes between “children’s diet” and “children’s food”, and while the former refers to what children actually eat on an everyday basis, the latter relates to what is often intended specifically for them as a special category of edibles. Similarly, in Poland, the distinction between children and adult food became more explicit in the 1990s, which I will discuss shortly.

  • 2 The research was done in Polish, all the translations are mine. The names of my interlocutors have (...)

7Children’s food is often understood as “children friendly food”, and includes such foodstuff as pizza, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, sweets and other forms of junk food (Curtis et al. 2010). This view is also shared in Poland. When people talk about “jedzenie dla dzieci” (food for children) or “dzieciowe jedzenie” (children’s food), they usually refer to diverse sweets and snacks, as 36-years-old Kasia told me about her daughter: “Like any child, she likes crisps and cola”; but also to meals intended for children, as 35-years-old Marcin explained to me: “It is known that children eat in the same way, they have similar tastes, and they will all eat pasta with some sauce 2.

8Adults often assume that all children like and dislike certain things: they all like chocolate and do not like fruits and vegetables. But childrenin the same way as adultshave their own taste preferences. Nevertheless, there is a certain expectation, both among children and adults that children are supposed to favor certain foods (Ludvigsen & Scott 2009). Elliott (2011) shows that according to children, children’s food is related with fun, colors, being interactive, while adults’ food entails seriousness, health, responsibility and is rather boring. However, she dismisses the connection between children’s food and fruits and vegetables that some of her interlocutors made, because it was rarely mentioned (ibid.: 136). Though the “fun foods” (Elliott 2011), “kets” (James 1979), “junk foods” are more clearly part of what constitutes children’s food, I argue that this is only a part of their food culture. Fruits and vegetables, dairy products, proper meals are also part of children’s food, because this is what they are fed and what they eat. For example, a typical polish meala soup and a pork or chicken breaded cutlet, with potatoes and saladis considered a “typical children friendly dish”; similarly with pancakes or meatballs. During my research, when people talked about children’s food, they referred not only to the products designed with children in mind, fun and junk foods; but also to these typical polish meals, the same foods that they have eaten in their childhood. Also children, in their drawings and during our conversations, included not only sweets and junk foods in what was their food (see the example below: Figure 1). Children’s food is what they are fed and what they eat, and that includes both what is considered proper (though it is assumed children do not like that) and what is considered not proper (often preferred by children) by adults.

9Figure 1: “Favourite foods”

Drawing by 7-years-old Gosia

  • 3 Among the foods categorized as inedible by children in my research there were for example chilli pe (...)

10The category of “children’s food”understood in such an inclusive wayis the essential part of children’s food culture. It is worth noticing that food, in this case, is categorized according to who eats it and not for example when it is eaten (Douglas 1975). Food is often categorized on the edible / not edible dimension. As Fischler (1988) argues, eating certain foodsand not eating othersdetermines the identity of the group and the affiliation with that group. Some foodstuffs are only children’s food, cannot be adults’ food, and include for example confectionery in crazy colors, shapes and tastes. Adults are not supposed to like and eat them, while children are expected to like and consume them. Even more: adults perceive these foods as inedible. On the other hand, there are certain foodstuffs that constitute typical adults’ food, for example spicy dishes and seafood. Children are not supposed to like and eat them, and often treat them as inedible3.

11It is important to emphasize that children’s food is a dynamic category. There are in fact many foods which are in between the categories of adults’ and children’s food; they are outside this classification or cross over it: they are consumed by both groups. However, in the same way as Durkheim and Mauss (1963) explain that many justifications of totem classifications are made post factum and ad hoc (ibid.: 12), similarly many foods are often in one way or another perceived either as children’s food or as adults’ food. It can be consumed by both groups, but be prepared especially for children or served to them in a different way, for example cut into small portions. Also, many meals when served to children are renamed. One of the parents from my research served a Hogwarts’ Stewas in the world of Harry Potterto his children. Other example is a vegetable soup that gains the name of a Shrek’s Soup or a Spring Soup, when it is served to children. This process of renaming certain dishes, preparing or serving them in a different way, reclassifies them as belonging to the category of “children’s food”. There is also a certain hierarchy in this categorization (Durkheim & Mauss 1963). Even though more care can be put in the preparation of children’s food, in general adults’ food is perceived as better and more proper. At some point, all children are supposed to change their food preferences and diets from those belonging to child food culture to those belonging to adult food culturethat is one of the signs of the proper food socialization. Durkheim and Mauss (ibid.: 4) explain that the totemic system is a certain way of grouping people in clans according to “natural” elements, but at the same time it is a way of grouping natural elements according to different social groups. Are the foods categorized according to their connection with either children or adults? Or are the categories of children and adults divided according to the foods they consume? It is possible to argue that we know that somebody is a child because of the foods they consume: eating certain foods makes you a child. And at the same time, we know certain foods are children’s foods because they are produced for them, liked by them and given to them. When eating them, adults are accused of being childish.

12Curtis, James and Ellis (2010) present the construction of children’s food as a practical, material and moral process. What children are fed with and what they eat is negotiated on an everyday basis through diverse practices and through the materiality of the foods eaten and not eaten. It is also a moral process, as a particular diet reflects the ideas of what is good and bad to eat. However, I would add one more dimensionchildren’s food is also created historically. What constitutes children’s food culture in contemporary Poland has been influenced by changes in the dietary advice, by what generations of parents have been feeding their children, by changes in the conceptions of childhood and parenthood, and in general by post-socialist transformation.

Post-socialist Context

13During the last thirty years, transformations in Poland have influenced changes in economy, political system, governance, freedom of speech and gathering, social policies, and membership in international alliances. Family life has also changed. There was a shift in responsibilities from “our state” to “your family”, from the emphasis on communal to individual/family units (Nash 2003: 219). This shift was also reflected in the discourse on raising children, in the entire model of modern personhood. In the socialist period, children were mostly perceived as future citizens, the discourse was focused on ethical upbringing of a social child, andas Urbańska (2012) showsit moved towards a medico-therapeutic discourse promoting functionalist and individualistic models of raising children. The “new child”, increasingly treated as an independent subject with her/his own rights and opinions, was formed (Sikorska 2009). The place of children within family and society has changed with the demographic decline and the growing number of “only children”. One of my interlocutors told me: “When I was a child, nobody cared about us; not like today; now it is all about children” (40-years-old Monika). Similarly to other countries, Poland is becoming a “neontocracy” that is a society focused on children (Lancy 2008).

14Family life has also been altered as consumption patterns and everyday practices changed when the socialist system with a centrally planned economy was transformed into a capitalist system with deregulated markets. Shopping, which during socialism required special skills because the availability and access to goods was unpredictable and uncertain (Wedel 1986; Mazurek 2010), since the 1990s has required other special skills because of the abundance of goods and fierce marketing campaigns (Caldwell 2009). 37-years-old Ania told me: “Once you had to stand in line for these products. I mean there were candies and biscuits, but it wasn’t as available as it is today! Today children can buy diverse chocolate bars on their way to school, and you cannot control it!

  • 4 One of my interlocutors told me that Nutella spread was described as a “chocolate jam”, since there (...)

15For gaining historical perspective, it is interesting to compare the situation of children todaywhich is presented throughout this textwith their parents’ experiences from their own childhoods. What was their food culture all about? How was it negotiated? While the idea of breaking adult norms and bending rules was similar, the possibilities and options of implementing this were different. Children usually ate what adults did. Family diets did not change substantially when children were born. The only difference was the emphasis put on dairy productsand sometimes also on meatas important for children. As for sweetsa vital part of children’s food culturehomemade foods dominated, with pies, jellies, the ubiquitous kogel-mogel (egg yolks beaten with sugar) and cakes on special occasions. Sweets were bought rather rarely, and they differed in many ways from what can be bought today. There was almost no difference between adults’ and children’s sweets, as underlined by James (1979) in her article concerning the phenomenon of “kets” and so evident today. Krówki (a kind of fudge very popular in Poland till today), plums covered in chocolate, hard candies and other types of sweetmeats were liked regardless of age, though they were often searched for and later stored especially for children. There were also sweets “from the West”, bought in special shopsnot opened to everyone; or sometimes brought back from travels to the West or received in gift packages. They were an exciting novelty and a surprising symbol of a different food culture4. Breaking adults’ norms did not necessarily relate to what was eaten, but rather to when and how it was eaten. Breaking the order of meals, sneaking to steal something sweet which was forbidden and hidden away, refusing to eat what was supposed to be eaten at the dinner tablethese were tactics to bend adult norms and create another type of food culture. Children on the one hand had more freedom, for example they used to dare each other to eat worms when playing unattended outside. And at the same time they were more disciplined than children are today, for example many children had to sit at the table until everything from their plate was eaten up, and some of them were hit for not eating properly.

  • 5 Hitting children became illegal in 2010. In 1991 Poland ratified the United Nations Convention on t (...)
  • 6 Children in Poland spend their own money mostly on ice cream, bars and candies, chewing gum, crisps (...)

16Since the 1990s, conceptions of childhood and parenthood together with family life have changed in Poland5. Also in the 1990s, children’s food market emerged and developed rapidly when many Western companies entered Poland. Dunn (2004) uses the example of Frugo drink to show how the idea of niche marketingnot known in Poland beforewas implemented. A new group of consumers was created/discovered, as the manager explained: “Frugo is aimed especially at youth. Frugo will be a part of young world like no other brand. It will be a fragment of their culture” (ibid.: 58). Kinder Surprise was introduced in Poland in 1992; Nutella followed in 1995; Nestle started selling its cereals in 1993; and the first yogurts intended for children, so called “Danonki”, have been sold by Danone since 1992. As in other cultural contexts (e.g. Jing 2000a), in Poland as well changes in the food market influenced, or even created children’s food culture. Children’s purchase power for example is a relatively new phenomenon in Poland and has been increasing since the 1990s6. Children also adopt various tactics to persuade their parents to buy certain thingsso called “pester power”. “Children’s foods” are not only those advertised and marketed to children and bought by them, but also those advertised and marketed to mothers, and bought by them for their children. Food producers not only respond to (or create) children’s needs, but also respond to (and use) parental expectations and desire to feed their children properly, and to educate them. This results in goods that can be characterized as “edutainment” or “nutritainment”: combining the mother’s need for nutritious food and education with a child’s desire for fun and entertainment. Changes in the food market provided both children and their parents with different objects, tools and ways to create and negotiate children’s food culture.

Negotiating Children’s Food Culture

17In the remaining part of this article, I will discuss how different food occasions or food categories, which are an important part of children’s food culture in Poland, are negotiated. I focus on three examples: a proper meal, sweets and drugie śniadanie (second breakfast) brought to school, as children in Poland do not get a lunch but a drugie śniadanie to school.

A Proper Meal

18Although it is often assumed that children’s food culture consist only of junk foods and snacks, and not entirely proper meals, such as pizza or chicken nuggets; I argue that in fact a proper meal is a very important part of children’s food culture. It is an important social occasion: eating proper meals as a family makes a family, it is a moral obligation and also a good occasion to discipline and socialize children (DeVault 1991; James et al. 2009). A proper meal is also important from the nutritional perspective, and the concept of a proper meal in Poland is somewhat similar to the English version (Douglas 1975; Murcott 1982). It entails two dishes: a soup and a second dish consisting of meat, starch (usually potatoes) and vegetables. Nowadays eating even one of these dishes would be considered proper.

  • 7 That is not to say however that they did not eat pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers as well.
  • 8 This might be research specific; in the countryside for example family diets do not necessarily cha (...)

19Among the families participating in my research children ate these kinds of meals almost on an everyday basis7. There is a visible turn to the more typically Polish cuisine when cooking for children: soups, schnitzel or meatballs with potatoes and salad, pancakes, pierogithese are widespread children friendly meals, also served in school canteens in Poland. Parents mentioned that they rarely cooked anything like that before having children, and switched to this more typical Polish cuisine when feeding themthese are the dishes they ate and liked in their childhood8.

20The parents’ goal is to feed their children properly, even if children do not like it. At the same time all the parents I talked to do not force their children to eat. A lot of them referred to horrible childhood memories, when they had to sit at the table until everything from their plate was eaten. At the same time they recognize how important it is that children eat what they (nutritionally) need. This challenging issue is usually solved by preparing what children like. Family diets are planned with children in mind: “We try to be liberal in the boundaries and limits we set up, to adjust to them, talk with them, and give them what they like, what they are in a mood for. (...) I have already learned what they don’t eat, and I try to avoid these things, because this was suicidepreparing something for half a day so that they don’t even touch it (Natalia, 30-years-old); “I am not preparing things which none of them likes; this is just not worth it! (...) Sometimes I manage to do something more, so for example both the meatballs and chicken breast cutlets, if I have more time, but that happens rarely (Monika, 40-years-old).

21Monika, having three children, rarely can prepare something separate for each of them, so she rather has a food routine, a set menu for each week; so that each of her children can eat something they like every couple of days. Many parents talked about that kind of menu, an offer or repertoire of foods, from their point of view very limited, which is prepared for their children. Besides the fact that family menus are in general adapted to children’s preferences and time schedules, mothers additionally often prepare something completely different for their children, as 30-years-old Karolina told me:If she doesn’t want to eat a meal, because there are veggies, I am able to get up from the table and cook something just for her.

22Parents establish certain rules concerning feeding their children, for example when and what they should eat, and then implement diverse strategies to enforce these rules. In a similar way as technocratic strategies described by de Certeau (1984: xix), parental strategies assume a place which is considered proper. Parents assume they know what is best and the most proper for their children. And just as consumers in their everyday practices, children use different tactics to re-negotiate and transform these strategies (de Certeau 1984). Mealtimes especially become sites of such negotiations. From parents’ perspective there often is a need for encouragement strategies at the table (Paugh & Izquierdo 2009; O’Connell & Brannen 2014). Parents do not force feed their children, but they use diverse strategies to persuade them to eat. The most common negotiations include such phrases as: “Eat just five more spoonfuls of soup, and you will be done”; “Eat just a small part of your meat and veggies. Parents also indicate on children’s plates what should be eaten:Usually we would not move to the next stage: dessert. It is not about her eating absolutely everything, we set the border: either on the plate or in the amount of spoonfuls or bites she needs to eat (Marcin, 35-years-old).

23Dessert is often promised as a reward for complying with parents’ decision. Similarly, the refusal of dessert is treated as a way of persuading children to eat. Conditional promises and negotiations are one way of persuading children, parents also use emotional pressure:If she doesn’t want to eat I will coax her, and tell her how it was when my parents worked in the fields, and if my grandmother was not around, there was no dinner at all! I tell them they would understand and see how it was if I stopped cooking for a week! (Kasia, 36-years-old).

24Parental persuasion techniques are often reproduced. Many of my adult interlocutors in their childhood heard stories about children in Africa who are starving and about their parents’ horrible memories of food scarcity. Children today hear different and yet so incredibly similar stories appealing to their sense of morality and guilt.

25But children use diverse verbal and non-verbal tactics to avoid eating what they do not want to eat or in the way they are supposed to eat. They react to adults’ strategies and renegotiate them. And it is relatively easier to persuade adults at home than at school, as 6-years-old Ania explained: “At home I can leave everything [on the plate], at school that’s not possible. Children’s tactics include bluntly refusing to eat, whining and complaining to one parent or another, tossing food to somebody’s else’s plate or throwing it on the floor, crying. They also play one parent against each other. They are in general successful in their tactics, as expressed by 11-years-old Tomek: “If I like it, I will eat everything. [And if not?] Then I will not. My mom complains, but I always manage to leave something.

26A proper meal has always been an important part of children’s food culture in Poland. Many of my adult interlocutors referred to these kinds of meals when remembering their childhood. They often sentimentalize these childhood dishes, which are then prepared for children today and become a part of their food culture. And this relates not only to what is eatenthe typically Polish meals including soups, cutlets with potatoes and salads, pancakesbut also to when, how and with whom it is eaten. Children’s food culture is deeply embedded within family life. Therefore eating meals as a part of the familybut more importantly as a special member of that family, who is treated in a different way from adults and whose food is also treated in a different way from adults’ foodis a significant part of children’s food culture. Through diverse tactics children renegotiate parental strategies and incorporate proper meals into their food culture.


27Most parents consider their children’s consumption of sweets as not healthy and not entirely proper: they are concerned with children’s weight and their teeth and dental hygiene. Sweets are not only non-nutritious, but also represent a threat to parental authority (Fischler 1986). So parents implement diverse strategies to limit or balance out children’s sweets consumption. For example 33-years-old Monika explained: “We have this rule, that in order to eat a sweet sandwich, with jam or Nutella, they first need to eat a salty sandwich, with ham or cheese, and some veggies, like tomato, cucumber or paprika. Some parents limit the eating of sweets to one or two days per week, like 40-years-old Kasia is trying to do: “We negotiated Thursday as a sweet day (…). But it’s impossible to do! First of all, there would need to be consent in the family, and my husband does not really agree. Secondly, the grandparents would have to adapt, which is very unlikely, and thirdly the whole world would have to conform to this idea, and this means school, which is completely not possible!

28Kasia’s situation shows that the negotiations influencing children’s food culture occur not only between adults and childrenquite implicit in this quotationbut also between adults. It is not only the parents who influence children’s eating. And children through diverse tactics use that situation to their advantage. For example, they often persuade or even coax their grandparents into giving them sweets, and fight against parental strategies. One of the grandmothers told me such a story about 9-years-old Ola: “When I prepared pancakes for her, she said she wants them not only with sour cream, but also with sugar, that her other grandmother always gives her a lot of sugar on the pancakes! But I did not give it to her. Later I’ve found out that the other grandmother does not give her any sugar with the pancakes. She’s a little coercer!

29There is a moral ambivalence associated with sugar and sweets. They inhabit an interesting moral space because they are nutritionally “bad for you”, but conceptually “good for you”; they are “naughty but nice” (James 1990). And parents realize that their children like certain sweets, which give them pleasure because they are tasty and fun, and in that sense good for them. Also, eating certain sweets is often socially important: if children do not at least try them, they might be ridiculed and laughed at by their peers, as illustrated by Chee (2000) in her examples of inclusion and exclusion of students in one of the Beijing schools. 30-years-old Karolina told me, that her daughter sometimes asks for certain sweets, she wants to bring them to school, because all her friends bring them to school, and so Karolina gives her money for that. She does not want her daughter to feel bad among her friends: she wants her to fit in.

30Even though many adults expect all children to like all sweetsthat is the general assumptionin fact children’s attitudes to sweets vary. They have their favorite and those they do not like. Some of them love chocolate and others hate it. Some of them love gummy candies and others do not like it. And their ideas of and meanings attached to sweets differ as well. For some of them, sweets are homemade oatmeal cookies and cereal bars with dried fruits. For others, it is gummy candies and lollipops. Children to whom I talked to were all aware of the distinction between healthy and not healthy foods. They all recognized sweets as not healthy for them. They not only distinguished between what is healthy and what is not, but some of them were also able to explain why. For example 12-years-old Julia told me: “There’s the restriction on sweets [consumption] so that my teeth do not decay and I don’t become too fat”. At the same time, children like certain sweets. And the fact that children like sweets and treat them as good (in terms of pleasure and taste) and at the same time know that they are bad (nutritionally) is not conflicting for them. In the same way as adults, children are able to relate to and incorporate various moral and normative systems at the same time. Moreover, eating healthy foods can be viewed as a rejection of inherent meaning of being a child (Ludvigsen & Scott 2009). Children not only like sweets for their taste and fun they might provide, but also because these are products created especially for them, they are part of their culture. Moreover, eating sweets often disturbs the order of meals. As James (1979) shows, it is strongly associated with bending or breaking adults’ rules. One of the grandparents, who lies to his daughter and breaks the rules she sets up for her children, explained to me that he loves giving his granddaughters sweets because this is what childhood is about: “I love this moment when they approach me and ask ‘grandpa, what do you have?’ with a mischievous smile, and then we look together into this box where the sweets are hidden, and together we break the rules.

31The moral ambivalence towards sweets also means that there are good and bad sweets, or rather better and worse sweets. Chocolate for example is considered good, but it is also perceived as an example of adults’ sweets. The most problematicand at the same time the most symbolic of children’s food cultureare what James (1979) calls “kets”: cheap, unbranded and usually unwrapped, small products, in various shapes and colors, with funny names, often inducing surprising sensations in the mouth; and with different textures and tastes, including lollipops, gummy candies, sweetmeats, sweet drops, chewing gums. In Warsaw, parents often discourage children from eating these kinds of foods. But children can often buy them in school (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sweets I bought in one of the school shops in Warsaw

Figure 2. Sweets I bought in one of the school shops in Warsaw

Picture by Katarzyna Boni

32Many schools in Poland have small shops on their properties, so-called “school shops”, which have been developing since the 1990s. These shops are usually owned by outside entrepreneurs who rent the space from the school, and sell stationery and diverse foods, mostly confectionery. They provide one of the rare occasions for children’s autonomy, allowing them to make their own economic choices without their parents knowing. Children often value the possibility of buying these sweets and sharing them more than eating them. Buying sweets in a school shop is an important social practice and a significant part of children’s food culture. In different parts of school, children negotiate with each other when and with whom they are going to the school shop. They spend a lot of time on deciding what to buy, and they either share the expenses: they count how much money they have altogether and decide what to buy and then share it; or they reciprocate gifts: “So you will buy something for me today, and I will buy something for you tomorrow”, as one of the young girls explained to her friend.

33However, adults, both at home and at school, set up diverse rules and implement strategies concerning children’s practices in school shops. For example, according to her parents, 9-years-old Ola can buy sweet snacks in the school shop only on Thursdays, because that is her “sweet day”; and 10-years-old Monika should rather buy sandwiches than crisps or candies. Teachers also employ certain strategies to limit children’s sweets consumption. For example they prohibit children from coming to their classes with products bought in school shops. But children renegotiate these strategies and bend all of these rules (Boni 2014).

34Sweets are probably the most symbolic of children’s food culture because they are not only universally connected to children as their main taste preference, but also their consumption often disturbs the existing system and order of meals. It allows children to bend or break adults’ rules and create their own system of meanings. And currentlybecause of children’s increasing purchase power, their changing place within family, and the constantly growing category of children’s sweets, differentiated from adults’ sweetssweets are becoming the most evident element of children’s food culture.

Drugie śniadanie

35Drugie śniadanie is an interesting object which connects home and school in a very direct way (Metcalfe et al. 2008): the packed meal is prepared at home, usually by a parent, and is supposed to be eaten at school by the child. Sandwiches are the most popular drugie śniadanie, as it used to be for decades. They do however differ from what the previous generations of children ate: one of the principals I talked to mentioned that “‘poor sandwiches’ are disappearing, today sandwiches usually have some salad, or tomatoes, or are based on wholemeal bread, it is something more than just a wheat roll with butter, ham or cheese. Additionally, some children receive more foodstuffs than just sandwiches: cut vegetables or fruits, sweetsoften designed as a second breakfast treat, juices, yogurts, crisps, chocolate bars. Many of these can be eaten at any given moment, but as a whole they unmistakably create drugie śniadanie. This is strengthened by the packaginglunchboxes designed for children, colorful and often with popular culture characters, which are a relatively new thing in Poland. All of this careful consideration and preparation is something that did not exist during socialism, when children brought food from home to schoolwhich was less common than it is today. It was usually just a simple sandwich, without any addition, such as something to drink. Allison (2008) demonstrates how in Japan the school lunchbox becomes a symbol of a mother’s attitude towards her child’s wellbeing and education. The obeñto is the sign of a woman’s commitment as a mother and her inspiring her child to become similarly committed as a student. Similarly in Warsaw, parents are increasingly evaluated on the basis of the drugie śniadanie they prepare for their children. Teachers comment on their content among themselves, and they accuse certain parents of not behaving properly. They also negotiate with parents and try to establish rules concerning the proper food brought to school, for example crisps do not fall into this category.

36Drugie śniadanie as an important part of children’s food culture relates not only to what is eaten, but even more so to how, when and where it is eaten. First of all children often do not eat everything that was given to them and what they were supposed to eat, or if they eat it they do it in the “wrong” order: sweets first. Children forget about it, throw away things they do not like, and also share and exchange with each other what they brought from home. They ask their parents to give them more of certain foods, because their school friends enjoy it. So it sometimes happen that parents end up making two sandwiches, or giving their child much more dried fruits, fresh fruits or candies than they would normally do. Bringing popular foods to school is an important practice for gaining social prestige (Chee 2000). When 40-years-old Tomek started preparing garlic bread for 9-years-old Ola, all her friends enjoyed it so much that she continuously asked for more and more. Also, other parents approached Tomek when he was at school to ask him how he prepares this garlic bread because their children cannot stop talking about it. Some teachers however often perceive the sharing and exchanging of foods as unhygienic and not proper. One of them told me: “Oh, this is disgusting! They share and try everything from each other. They would even divide a sausage into ten pieces to share it!

37Secondly, children often do not eat drugie śniadanie in a “proper” way: that is they eat with their hands, they eat food that fell on the floor, they divide the foodstuffs that are not supposed to be divided into pieces, etc. Thirdly, children often do not eat in the places or at times where and when they are supposed to. The proper place is usually a classroom, and a proper time is a breakfast break. Children do however use different tactics to bend these rules. The most popular place to eat is a corridor: they can seat on the floor or wherever they want, with whom they want, or eat while playing, quite often while kicking ballwhich is considered especially improper by adults. Another popular place during summer is the courtyard in front of the school. But there are also others, for example in one of the schools a bathroom became a popular place for eating drugie śniadanie. This practice, however, was perceived as “disgusting” by teachers and eradicated. Throughout my fieldwork, I have heard countless discussions concerning the proper place and time for children to eat what they have brought from home. Teachers use diverse strategies to persuade them to eat in a proper way, at a proper time and place, and children through the use of diverse tactics transform these rules and introduce new understandings of what is “proper”.

38Drugie śniadanie is an important part of children’s food culture. It is a symbol of parental love and care. It is children’s everyday experience, even if not all of them receive it. Eating such a drugie śniadanie categorizes children as children. Adults create it and theyboth parents and teachersimplement diverse strategies and establish diverse rules concerning eating it; and then children use different tactics to evade these rules; they add new and different values and meanings to it and in their own way incorporate it into their world. So drugie śniadanie as a part of children’s food culture is negotiated, created and influenced both by adults and children.

Conclusion: The Changing Children’s Food Culture

39Children’s food culture is not a new phenomenon in Poland. Children for a long time have been eating differently from adults. They created their own understanding of food and eating, and even if they ate the same food as adults did, they attached different meanings and values to it. However children’s food culture has changed substantially during the post-socialist period. It was influenced by the changes in family life and in the conceptions of childhood and parenthood. The complete transformation of the food market has shaped children’s food culture as well. The “new child” is a consumer with an increasing purchase power. She has a different role and more influence on the family than the “old child”. Children’s food culture is more visible today, because there are more material objects which represent it: colorful confectionery, products with children’s popular culture characters, children friendly utensils, such as plates or cutlery, lunchboxes. Since the place of children within family and society has changed, more attention is given to them and they are increasingly more visible in the public and social space. Children can react to the adults’ world in different new ways and incorporate its elements into their own. However, children’s food culture is in a vital part created by adults: they produce the foods and utensils children use; they set up rules and implement strategies to which children react; they create situations or categories which children change in their own way. Children’s food culture is negotiated between adults and children, and among adults and children. Adults do negotiate what is proper and improper for children between themselves, be it a mother and a father, parents and grandparents, parents and teachers. And their opinions are not only influenced by the dominating nutritional discourse, by the food producers and marketers who point to their needs and expectations; but also by their memories and experiences from their childhoods. Adults implement diverse strategies to enforce their ideas of what is proper and not proper for children. And children fight with these strategies; they renegotiate and transform adults’ rules through the use of diverse tactics, they make something new out of it. Children also negotiate between themselves, for example through creating a certain system of values related to what kind of food, where, when, how and with whom should be eaten. Children’s food culture is created and influenced both by adults and by children in their everyday negotiations, but it is also the result of historical changes that occurred in Poland. Children’s food culture is created through practical, moral, material and historical processes.

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1 Partly funded by the Polish National Science Centre (DEC-2012/07/N/HS3/04137). I would like to thank all the reviewers for their contribution to this article.

2 The research was done in Polish, all the translations are mine. The names of my interlocutors have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

3 Among the foods categorized as inedible by children in my research there were for example chilli peppers, seafood, raw fish, hair, eye balls and duck.

4 One of my interlocutors told me that Nutella spread was described as a “chocolate jam”, since there were no other words to characterize it.

5 Hitting children became illegal in 2010. In 1991 Poland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

6 Children in Poland spend their own money mostly on ice cream, bars and candies, chewing gum, crisps and soft drinks (UKOiK 2006).

7 That is not to say however that they did not eat pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers as well.

8 This might be research specific; in the countryside for example family diets do not necessarily change when feeding children, I relate to research conducted in the urban context.

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List of illustrations

Caption Drawing by 7-years-old Gosia
File image/jpeg, 284k
Title Figure 2. Sweets I bought in one of the school shops in Warsaw
Credits Picture by Katarzyna Boni
File image/jpeg, 2.0M
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Electronic reference

Zofia Boni, Negotiating Children’s Food Culture in Post-socialist PolandAnthropology of food [Online], 9 | 2015, Online since 28 June 2015, connection on 03 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Zofia Boni

Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS,

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The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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