1The socialization process whereby the subjects adapt to their society and culture is, within the food field, not devoid of difficulties. Food resistance during this process is turned into one of the most challenging behaviours to face, and one that causes great anxiety in the familial environment. The refusal to eat is a behaviour that can be explained on physiological and psychosociocultural grounds. Among the former are the lack of appetite motivated by satiety or disease. As shall be further explained, the rest of the motivations fall within the psychological and sociocultural field of study. The qualitative research was carried out in the Residence Juan de Lanuza de Zaragoza (Aragón, Spain) while I worked there as a carer over a period of two years. During this period I participated daily in the life of the children who live there and kept a record of their food behaviour. The observations collected show that food resistance is the expression of a demand peculiar to the children’s age. In order to better contextualise the research it is worth briefly describing the environment in which it took place. The Residence Juan de Lanuza is a home for children, located in Zaragoza and it is run by the Social Wealth and Work Department of the Aragonese Government (Spain). It consists of a two-floor house and a basement, which accommodate up to 11 people, male and female, whose age ranges from 6 to 18.
2All the youths who need urgent assistance due to abandonment, ill treatment and lack of protection, are admitted into the residence by decree of the juvenile court judge, of the public prosecutor and/or the Head of Social Wealth and Work Department. Their stay in the Residence from the moment of their admission lasts up to one month. During this period, the centre undertakes their ward, education and care. It is the professionals’ task to welcome the children, observe their behaviour and facilitate the interdisciplinary study and diagnosis of the protectional measures that best suit their particular situation1. The discontinuation of the child’s stay in the residence is also decreed by the Head of the Social Wealth and Work Department (on request of the public prosecutor, due to the elimination of the cause that motivated the child’s admission, or when other measures have been taken to guarantee the child’s welfare) and/or because of the young person’s coming of age or emancipation.
3Food figures among the basic things children are provided with at the residence. One of the main targets of the home is to “urgently supply the children’s needs of hygiene, clothing and food on their arrival at the centre” since most children, at the moment of their admission into the residence are very badly dressed, filthy and undernourished.
4Food is prepared in another residence, also run by the aragonese government, which is next to the Residence Juan de Lanuza. Three cooks, who work shifts, are responsible for the preparation of food for both places; their elaboration inevitably reflects the degree of satisfaction they find in their job, as well as their emotional engagement with the children. In other words, the way food is prepared, reveals the importance that such professionals unconsciously attach to the young persons they are in charge of. The menu is set, although it is liable to be changed slightly by the cooks who, as a result of their growing affection, try to satisfy the children’s food preferences. Such minor variations significantly affect the children’s state of mind and their subjective position towards the treatment received in the centre.
5Foodstuffs such as milk, bread, buns, chocolate and so on, as well as cleaning products are kept in a pantry which only the staff have access to. Nobody is allowed to take food out without the carer’s authorisation. If children fail to observe this rule, they are punished according to the nature of the “stolen” item of food. The more “capricious” the kind of food (fruit juices, chocolate, chocolate spread, etc.), the stricter the punishment inflicted.
6The kitchen also serves as dining room. Carers set the table on a plastic cloth: cutlery –forks and knives, spoons only if there is soup or something similar–, glasses, a plate and a bowl for each diner, paper napkins for the staff and cotton serviettes for the children. Carers also slice the bread, place it into a wicker basket and fill a plastic jug with water.
7Members of the staff always seat at the head of the (rectangular) table. They seat on a wooden chair, while the children seat on two wooden benches. The position occupied by the diners during the meal, reflects their social structure. As A. Millán points out, social differences are “staged” around the table, thus, the group of diners forms a hierarchy structured around a leader (1997: 223).
8The young people choose where to seat, some of them, due to their affective needs, like to be close to their carers; others, prefer to seat far from the staff and, in this case, they prefer to be close to their friends and detached from other mates they are not in good terms with. In any case, the way children are positioned around the table makes the social relationship between the diners patent, which helps the carers supervise and facilitate the correct consumption of the meal. The children who do not get on well will not seat close together, those who find it difficult to be quiet and to behave properly during the meal will seat next to the staff, etc.
9When all the diners have taken their seat, the carer dishes the food out. The menu is the same for both staff members and children; thus, since everybody eats the same food, social differences are erased. After the meal is over, one of the children, complying with the daily tasks, helps the staff to clear the table. The leftovers which are disposed of, are a cause of complaint among the carers; the children, on the contrary, hardly take any notice of this practice because they do not regard throwing away food as wasteful.
10The children’s basic needs are satisfied by the daily food selection. After some time, their nutritional state may become even more satisfactory than that of other young persons of the same age who are socially adapted. However, the targets of the residence, as far as food is concerned, go beyond the satisfaction of basic nutritional needs; once the elemental wants of food, clothing and hygiene are covered, the staff will foster the acquisition of socially adapted habits, behaviour and values. For this reason carers keep a daily record of the way the children relate themselves to food.
11The importance attached to food habits lies in that, as R. Ma. Calvet and P. Santo argue, habits are regarded as a necessary part of the learning that results in the child’s socialization. Habits are essential to social life and we regard them as that which the child must learn; if we believed that they are acquired naturally, there would be no schools whatsoever (1995: 43, 44).
12As Millán observes, carers are aware that commensality is the “symbolic manifestation of humanisation” (1997: 219), consequently, they try to “humanise” the children they are in charge of. For this reason, meals are subjected to multiple rules and sociocultural values which the staff try to communicate to the young people. In other words, the process of socialization involves educational acts.
13At this point, it is worth defining what is meant by “socially adapted food habits”. In our case, the definition is not to be found within the educational project of the residence; it originates in the carers’ ideology, values, sociocultural beliefs, etc. Working staff are constantly present and active during the educational process that will make children grow “good” food habits. The whole ritual of commensality is subjected to norms; as Millán argues, rules of commensality are sociocultural prescriptions which regulate behaviour in the communal process of food presentation, distribution and consumption. Such norms, which are universal in their relation to the species, are interculturally and intersocially specific (1997: 225).
14As far as meals are concerned, there is a strict timetable to be observed at the residence. As one of the workers (male, 28 years old) asserts, “the goal is to get the children used to routine”. There are four meals a day (breakfast at 9.30, lunch at 13.30, tea at 17.30 and dinner at 21.00), during which children eat together with the two carers on duty.
15As already mentioned, in compliance with their daily tasks the young people help the staff with the food related chores. The child on duty helps to set and clear the table, slice the bread, dress the salad, put the dishes into the dishwasher, wipe the table, sweep the floor, etc. In return for his/her work the child is given the possibility of deciding what film is to be shown before bedtime.
16Children must observe certain hygienic rules before they actually start eating: they have to wash their hands and, before breakfast, they must be well dressed and tidy. In the evening, they cannot have dinner until they have had a shower and put their pyjamas on. Every child has got a cotton serviette which s/he places on her/his lap to avoid getting it stained. Younger children use a bib, with which they are expected to wipe their mouths, but not their noses. The table has to be kept as clean as possible during the meal.
17Nobody starts eating until all the children are seated and carers have dished the first course out. The expression “bon appétit” signals the beginning of the meal. The importance of this practice, eating in company, lies in that, as Millán observes, those who eat and drink together implicitly agree to renounce to part of the food, to the advantage of the other. To survive together means to deny the individuality of consumption and to assert collectively; to share food with other diners amounts to create a specific group, to assert its existence and, symbolically, to build and preserve society (1997: 223).
18The children have to seat correctly when they eat and they cannot stand up until everybody has finished their meal. The handling of kitchenware is also governed by rules. Food cannot be touched with one’s hands unless it is bread, chicken, fruit and so on. Cocoa powder, sugar and jam must be spooned out of the jars; it is forbidden to lick the spoon and then place it back into the jar.
19During the meal children are not allowed to sing, shout, belch or pass wind. Food has to be chewed slowly. There are no television sets in the dining room, because their presence would be detrimental to social interaction and group cohesion. Music is played during the dinner only on some important festive occasion such as New Year’s Eve. Restrictions also extend to language: children cannot use expressions such as “it is revolting” when referring to food, a prohibition which is meant to avoid the negative influence that this and similar comments might have on other children.
20Discipline at table implies mutual respect. Children are not allowed to throw pieces of bread at each other, they cannot mock housemates for disliking food etc. It is ultimately a way of fostering co-operational behaviour: to serve water to those whose glass is empty, serve the others first, pass them the bread, etc. As a general rule, between diners, requests are always expressed in a polite way.
21Once the meal is over, every child takes his/her dish and glass to the sink and puts his/her serviette away into a drawer. Before turning to some other activity children have to brush their teeth. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that there is no chat around the table after dinner, since all that is usually consumed after the meal (coffee, alcohol, tobacco, etc) is exclusively for adults and forbidden to children.
22As to food consumption, it is also governed by some general rules; the sociocultural values of the carers determine which kind of food is “good”, and which is not. Good food has to be eaten forcefully, “bad” food is forbidden. The children are expected to eat and taste at least a small portion of every kind of food included in the menu, not only because variety is considered essential to the preservation of health and physical development, but because the agreement to eat a symbolic quantity of the food offered by the carers, implies the acceptance of their authority.
23For health reasons, salad and fruit are also considered “compulsory” food. The children are expected to eat at least half a piece of fruit. If more than one kind is available, the child can choose which s/he will have, but s/he cannot choose the same fruit every day. As to bread, every diner helps herself/himself to as much bread as s/he likes: only an excessive consumption of bread will attract the carer’s attention, whereas if the child does not eat bread at all, s/he will pass unnoticed.
24Breakfast usually consists of a glass of an instant chocolate drink. Children are not allowed to make excessive use of sugar (4-5 teaspoonfuls) or of cocoa powder (up to 3 spoonfuls). Every child eats two buns and up to 5-6 biscuits; according to the carers, a larger quantity of food would be unhealthy because it might cause cholesterol rates to increase. If the children still feel hungry, they are allowed to eat some bread with margarine and jam. Breakfast does not include coffee or fruit juice; only when a child strongly dislikes milk, is s/he allowed to drink industrial fruit juices. The latter, along with soft drinks, are categorised as “festive” drinks and children can have them at tea time, on Sundays or on other special occasions. The children also eat special dishes symbolically associated with celebrations or festive days: it is the case of the “Roscón de Reyes” (A special cake eaten on Twelfth Day/Epiphany), Christmas nougat, birthday cakes, etc. During such meals alcohol consumption, usually champagne, is restricted to the professionals working in the centre.
25During lunch or dinner, the use of sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, etc., is permitted only if the food is served without any salad, sauce or gravy. The consumption of other kinds of dressings such as salt and vinegar is always supervised by the carer; they are added to food only when necessary.
26At tea time children usually eat ham, sausage, salami, etc., or chocolate spread. Children are also allowed to drink milk, but they are not supposed to stick always to the same food. In this respect, chocolate spread is a controversial food item, because it is symbolically associated with gluttony and its consumption is allowed only twice a week.
27Sweets are consumed in between main meals, usually during leisure time. During the daily outings, the staff treat the children to seeds or other sweets in order to gain their confidence and symbolically draw their attention to the fact that they are in a relaxed situation. Thus, as the food is associated with relax, it acquires the power to release the child’s tensions. For this reason, sweets consumption is also allowed while the children watch films before bedtime.
28All the food practices mentioned so far, are ruled by disciplinary norms. According to the educational project: “all kinds of behaviour must be considered from a standpoint of comprehension of the child’s personal growing process, and not exclusively from the perspective of rule transgression (...). As a general principle, every kind of intervention on the children’s conduct will be educative and pedagogical”
29Punishment, in the case of bad food behaviour, usually consists of simple verbal warnings such as “use your serviette”, or “do not start eating until everybody has taken a seat”. Sometimes, children are chastised in a more specific way, which is proportional to the seriousness of the transgression and suited to the child’s own characteristics. So for example, if a child is late for breakfast s/he will not eat any buns. Those who do not wash their hands before the meal will not be allowed to seat at the table. If somebody lacks good manners while eating, they will leave the dining room and will eat alone later on, or they will be asked to leave the room for about 3-5 minutes and join the diners again afterwards, or if the dessert that day is one of the young person’s favourites (for example, ice cream), the transgressive child will be left without it.
30There is a tendency to regard the refusal to eat more problematic than, for instance, starting to eat before everyone else has started, leaving the table during the meal, or even eating in excess. In this last respect, it is worth mentioning that the child who always finishes the food in her/his plate, who never has enough and asks for more, is regarded by the dominant discourse as normal (unless s/he is known to suffer from bulimia). If, according to this view, the refusal to eat is the problematic behaviour par excellence , it follows that it is also the one that elicits the harshest punishment. The child who refuses to eat even a small portion of some of the food, will not be allowed to finish the rest of her/his meal. When her/his mates have finished, s/he joins them in other activities or is kept aside (in her/his room, or outside the residence) for a while. Sometimes, however, the child will not be allowed to leave the table until s/he has had her/his minimum portion of food.
31Since the child’s refusal to eat seems to be the carers’ main worry, and consequently what, in their opinion, deserves the strictest chastisement, I will devote the rest of this paper to food resistance.
32The child, as a biologic organism, needs to be fed and the carer satisfies such need. If the target of the centre were only that of nourishing children, these would seldom refuse to be fed by the staff. Yet, if we agree that the wish of the carers, and the core of their work, is to “humanise” the child, the task is much more difficult than it seems at first sight. The young people in the residence may or may not agree to be fed by the staff.
33This behaviour shows qualitative and quantitative differences; the children might refuse to eat the first or the second course, pudding or anything else. They might not want to eat breakfast, tea, the minimum quantity of food or even the sweets offered by the staff on extraordinary occasions.
34Among the above conducts, some will be qualified as problematic food behaviour according to the carers’ sociocultural values; in fact, as mentioned before, it is the staff who decide what is to be eaten and what is optional.
35Food resistance on the part of the children who are between 6 and 12 years of age is motivated by various factors. Resistance is seldom caused by lack of appetite, on the contrary, its origin lies in sociocultural aspects. For example, the urban origin of the children may motivate their refusal to eat any kind of food which is directly associated with animals. As Millán points out, acceptance or resistance appear when the origin of the food is made evident (1998: 143). So, for instance a girl under 7 refused to drink milk for breakfast when she realised it was produced by cows. Another child (8 years of age) preferred to go without food rather than eat some lamb ribs which, in his opinion, were “too raw”.
36However, as became clear after two years of observation, food resistance in children is rarely related to aesthetic (colour, presentation) or culinary factors (texture, taste, temperature, smell, ways of preparation). Rather, it is the expression of a demand which has a personal meaning for the child and is not easy to interpret on the part of adults. Although this kind of behaviour has no repercussions on the children’s physical condition, it does affect their psychological health.
37It seems that the wish to belong to a certain age group is another factor which motivates food resistance; this becomes evident in the rejection of that food which is associated with adulthood. For example, children usually associate fish and vegetables to elderly people: one of them once remarked, “I won’t eat this codfish because it’s for old dodderers” (male, 8 years of age), and another “I can’t see why I have to eat beet (...), it’s for old people” (male,12 years of age).
38As already mentioned, in this residence teenagers live together with younger children. The former, in order to differentiate themselves from the latter, refuse to eat what they consider “baby food”. As a teenager girl remarked, “I won’t have chocolate drinks, they’re for children”.
39Food may also be a marker of ethnicity. In the centre there are Spanish as well as Moroccan, Chinese, Rumanian, Ecuadorian children, etc., who are sometimes subjected to religious prohibitions on food; prohibitions that are respected in the centre. Muslim children, for example, cannot consume pork2 thus, the cooks must prepare other kinds of meat for them. On these occasions, the carers take advantage of the situation in order to draw the other children’s attention on the importance of cultural differences related to food.
40With the exception of pork meat, foreign children have to comply with the rules of the residence and they are expected to eat the same food as everybody else in the home. In this case, if they refuse to eat something, this rejection may be interpreted as a vindication of their ethnic difference. As Calvet and Santo argue, discourses that point to “massification” trigger, as a response on the part of the subject, the need to assert that we are not all the same (1995: 59). Food resistance is also related to the lack of familiarity with the dish. When foreign (or Spanish) children are given food that is unknown to them, they usually look down on it with suspicion. The consumption of food which is unknown or has been prepared in an unusual way, generates resistance: the child smells the food, observes it, watches as other children taste it, and so on. This neophobic attitude (Fischler, 1992) is changed through the socializing pressure exerted by the staff.
41The wish to belong to a specific ethnic group becomes particularly evident in the case of children of gipsy origin. Proud of their tradition, gipsies worship those habits which are close to their own food practices, whereas they are contemptuous of the habits of “payos”3. For gipsies, eating is a very intimate act; eating in public and/or with unknown people causes embarrassment (“lache”). A 12 year-old gipsy child will never take his snack to school because, according to him, “this is what ‘payos’ do”. Another seven year-old gipsy girl will not eat together with a carer in a public place, since “people might think that we are engaged”. According to the same girl, “when a man and a woman share food, it means that they are fiancées”.
42Gipsy norms related to food also affect the concepts of hygiene, structural order of the menu, etc. The cultural clash between the rules of the residence, established by payo-carers, and those of gipsy children who live here, results in the food resistance of the latter. In this case, the refusal to eat may be interpreted as a rejection of the above mentioned process of socialization. In other words, children refuse to be socialised according to the sociocultural values of the staff, that is, by a payo-institution.
43Other factors which trigger the refusal to eat are of relational nature. Children food behaviour is related to their degree of satisfaction in the centre. When a child is not happy in the residence, s/he shows her/his unhappiness through food resistance; for example, s/he may be insisting all the time on the fact that the food prepared by her/his mother is much better than that of the centre. This, and similar discourses show the child’s longing for her/his mother and the wish to go back home.
44Food is also related to group cohesion. When the relationship between the young people and the carers, or between the children themselves is a conflicting one, food resistance comes to symbolise this relational tension. The aggressive feelings accumulated through tension are channelled through the refusal to be fed. In other words, the way the child “ill-treats” food, reflects the treatment s/he would give other children or adults.
45Among the young people there are some who refuse to eat in the company of those who have physical or mental handicaps because they get dirty easily, vomit, etc. Similarly, there are children who do not want to eat with those they consider to be ugly. Occasionally, a child may burst out laughing at somebody’s face4. In this case, the carer will intervene and order the child to stop scorning her/his mate: this injunction will result in the rejection of food on the part of the child who has been told off.
46If a child is angry with another child, the former will let the others know by refusing to eat. The way children are positioned around the table may also result in food resistance. If two children who are not on good terms are seated next to each other, one of the two, or both, might prefer leaving the table without having their meal to eating close to their “enemy”. This attitude reflects their refusal to relate to the others; as Millán observes, to share food is tantamount to establish a relationship of interdependence (1997: 223) which, in this case, the children are not willing to do. The two conflicting children’s friends, in order to show support to one or the other, may follow the same behaviour and leave the table. Such mechanisms of identification require the presence of a “leader” to be set into motion. When a child is highly admired by her/his mates, these tend to imitate her/his conduct.
47In a similar way, if a child-leader says that some kind of food is bad, other children might do the same5. In this way, ties of friendship can be said to be responsible for the “contagion” of food resistance. This behaviour is more commonly found within a group since here, the child feels protected by her/his mates.
48Behaviour at table is also an indicator of the kind of bond between the children and the workers of the centre. If a child senses that s/he has been treated unfairly (for example, if s/he believes that s/he was given more homework than the rest of the children), s/he will use the refusal to be fed as a means of protest. As B. Brusset points out, this kind of attitude is a way of taking action against the wrong done by others, by those who have the power to intervene and are considered morally responsible for what happens to the subject (1985: 36).
49Food resistance is also a strategy deployed by the child in order to test the limits of the carers’ authority. The struggle for power – the child does not want to eat and the carer forces her/him to do so– is considered by one member of the staff a game, thus, he argues, there is always a winner and a loser. The result of the confrontation will be the basis for the future relationship of these subjects. If the carer has elicited the child’s antipathy, the latter will eat only if s/he is not served by the adult whom s/he dislikes. Furthermore, such occurrences remain in the child’s memory; later on in life, the child might refuse to eat the food which brings back bad recollections. As a 12 year-old boy comments, “I don’t eat noodle soup because it’s typical of priests (...). I hate them, they were always hitting us at school”.
50However, when things work out well, the children in order to be loved by the carers and win their friendship and confidence, satisfy the latter’s wish to feed, and agree to eat what is offered. Yet, when the staff concentrate their wish exclusively on the satisfaction of the need for food, the child, in return, refuses to be fed. In this case, as Calvet and Santo point out, the wish is transformed, by the adult’s fixation on the need, into a closed area. The child by saying “no”, tries to find an alternative place within this space proposed by the “Other” (1995; 50). This proposal in fact, does not address the child’s need to be loved and appreciated, but originates in the carer’s exclusive concern for the nutritional aspect of feeding. As V. Palomera argues, in daily life parents handle their children’s food resistance by means of impositions. That is, they satisfy the children`s demand for love with an oral object whose consumption they impose, and in so doing they mistake physical cares for love (1988: 19).
51The mechanism of such behaviour can be observed daily at the residence. When the children are sad, downhearted, anxious etc., they would like the carers to pay attention to the way they feel. If the staff do not address this demand, children will use food resistance as a way of showing their anger at not being attended.
52Over the past few years, social changes in Spain have caused many children to have their lunch outside their homes, namely, at school. Unfortunately, the target of the school catering service is to satisfy nutritional needs, but not to educate children in food practices. The case I have just exposed has nothing to do with a school proper, and yet it is a good example of the effort made by a group of professionals in order to socialize children.
53Among the problems which arise during the process of food socialization, food resistance can no doubt be considered a serious one. The staff know that this behaviour has no repercussions on the children’s physical condition, but that it does affect their education and psychological health.
54As has been shown, food resistance is, in fact, a meaningful language. The reasons that cause a child to reject food are many and various: only one of them, lack of appetite, is related to the subject understood as a biological organism. The rest of the motivations fall within the psychological and sociocultural field of study: they are the expression of a demand peculiar to the children’s age. Through their conduct, children indicate their desire to belong in a specific age group, they vindicate their ethnic difference, they show their wish to relate or not to other mates or to the staff, they express the need to be attended, etc. Only after understanding the children’s wishes will we be able to intervene in order to modify their food habits.