Executive Summary




Diabetes is a disease that is becoming a worldwide problem for people of all ages. It is the leading cause of kidney failure, blindness, and lower limb amputations worldwide (The New Zealand Institute of Health and Fitness, 2014). Factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, unhealthy diets, and genetic predisposition may increase the likelihood of developing the disease. The current number of diabetes cases within New Zealand is over 240,000 diagnosed and is expected to be substantially higher.


During our time in New Zealand, we worked under the Child Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Prevention Network, which consisted of various doctors, nurses, and other professionals across New Zealand. The goal of this organization, established in March of 2013, is to ensure that research continues into the increasing prevalence of the disease and that awareness is strengthened. The information found within this project could be used to form a foundation for a social marketing campaign; it can be used to influence food practices at birthdays, better understand how entrenched unhealthy eating is at birthday parties, and identify opportunities for change to healthier eating practices. However, if the campaign takes into account the cultural and health needs of a population, then the campaign may have a higher chance of succeeding.

Children’s Culture

To begin a social marketing campaign, an organization must initially understand how to approach the intended audience. Within this project, we focused on learning more about the meanings of food in society, specifically on food within children’s birthday celebrations. Food practices form at a young age, creating a ‘children’s culture’ around food that is different from adults. Children’s culture is described as the “values, concerns, routines and activities that children develop and share with their peers in an attempt to control their own lives” (Albon, 2007: 413; Corsaro, 1999).


Birthday parties are an example of a celebratory food ritual. Rook defines the concept of a ritual as an “expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviors that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time” (1985, pg. 252). According to Rook (1985), a ritual can be grouped into four main parts: ritual artifacts, ritual scripts, performance roles, and ritual audience.

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The goal of this project was to determine parents’ reasons for serving unhealthy food, how children influence food choices, and under what conditions healthy foods might be substituted for unhealthy foods at birthday parties in New Zealand. We accomplished this by fulfilling the following objectives:

  • Understand the activities associated with birthday parties and the role of food in these activities.
  • Identify parental expectations and attitudes around birthday parties to determine why certain foods are served and their entrenchment.
  • Understand how children’s expectations of birthday parties impact the way they view food.

In order to explore this subject, we conducted in-depth interviews with parents or legal guardians with children between the ages of one and fourteen. We also incorporated a participant observation of a birthday party. The initial pool of interviewees was collected from personal and professional contacts of research supervisors. From there, we employed the snowball sampling method to expand the interview count to a total of 22. We recorded the interviews, then transcribed the audio and ended with over 300 pages of transcripts. Finally, we pulled out pertinent information after performing an open coding on the transcripts.

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Young children consume junk food both at home birthday parties and at school birthday celebrations

Between the ages of four and six, children attend kindergarten, known as kindie in New Zealand, where birthdays are celebrated in school. If the teacher allows, the birthday child can bring in a snack for morning or afternoon tea such as cake, marshmallows, popcorn, or ice blocks (popsicles) to share with his or her classmates. Many parents celebrate a child’s birthday at home with their entire class of 25 to 30 children where cake and lollies are provided. If children attend all of their classmates’ birthday parties and participate in the school celebrations, the frequency of eating ritualized junk food can be as high as 50 to 60 instances per year.

At birthday parties, parents often transgress their values about eating healthy food, and provide junk food to children, justifying it as a matter of convenience, cost, and tradition.

Although parents told us that they typically feed their children healthy food, they admitted to serving unhealthy foods at their birthday parties. Parents typically justified serving these foods because of the amount of time and money they saved buying food rather than preparing it themselves. Another justification that parents gave for serving junk food was tradition; parents realized some of the foods they served at their children’s parties were foods they ate at their childhood parties. The adults frequently mentioned ‘cheerio’ sausages and ‘fairy bread’ as traditional birthday snacks. However, not all foods are passed on in tradition.

Birthday cake, serving as an exemplar of junk food, is firmly established as the centerpiece of the party.

Throughout our interviews, nearly every parent mentioned how their children’s birthday parties had a cake. The interviewees all seemed to agree that a birthday would not be a birthday without a cake. The presentation of the cake typically followed the routine of: guests gathering around the birthday child and cake, the singing of the birthday song, the blowing out of the candles, and the cutting and eating of the cake. Some parents believe that it was the presentation of the cake, rather than the cake itself, that was the centerpiece of the birthday party.

Children learn from birthday parties to expect treats as rewards in their everyday lives.

The concept of the treat is not reserved for food rituals; it spills over into and from everyday life. Our interview data suggested that children learn to view treats as rewards. A major example of treats as rewards at birthday parties was loot bags given to children who attended. In addition, parents sometimes use treats, for example to get their children to eat vegetables or go to bed. Treats are being used to encourage behaviors that parents want to see.

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A child’s birthday is a reminder, to the parents, of the day that their child came into the world. However, the birthday and the food rituals associated with it not only celebrate the child, but also can be seen as a celebration of family. Parents frequently served traditional food at birthday parties because of the memories associated with those foods. Children prefer junk foods at birthday parties because it is a way of rebelling against the norm; by eating junk food, they are in control of their own food choices. Children choose foods forbidden or restricted outside their daily food because it makes them special and in control.

Parents, especially mothers in particular, want to serve healthy foods at birthday parties to prove that they are ‘good parents’ while wanting to fulfill their children’s demands for junk food. If children want junk food at their parties, mothers feel the need to serve it to please their children on their special day. These opposing views create stress for the parent.

This opportunity to show appreciation towards their children also causes stress on the parents because of commercialization. Children frequently attend parties and come home talking about the store-bought foods present and the themed activities played with their parents. With commercialization within today’s society and media encouraging the idea that an extravagant, costly party is typical, parents may feel pressured to meet the expectations brought about by socialization.

Since children are continuously socialized to expect unhealthy food at birthday parties, we concluded some of these food habits would be hard to change. Children’s associations are determined by the frequency of the items at birthday parties; the more often an item is at a child’s birthday party, the more likely they will be to associate the item with birthday parties.

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For Parents: Changing Children’s Expectations about Food

  • We recommend that parents serve healthy food in enticing and fun ways at birthday parties.
  • We recommend that parents cook with their children.
  • We recommend that parents talk about food with their children.
  • We recommend that parents provide alternatives to lollies in loot bags.

For the Network: Creating Alternative Birthday Food

  • We recommend that the Network creates a social marketing campaign targeting parents to raise awareness about the nutritional value of birthday foods and the frequency at which children are exposed to them.
  • We recommend that the Network provides recipes for healthy, fun food.

Future Research Questions:

We recommend that the Network further explores the role that ethnicity plays in the types and function of food served at birthday parties. 

  • How does the food expected at birthday parties of different ethnicities differ?
  • What common ingredients are used in the dishes provided?
  • How much of the celebration revolves around food?
  • What rituals are associated with food at the celebration?

We recommend that the Network further investigate the different food practices surrounding birthday parties hosted by people of different socioeconomic levels.

  • How does food at birthday parties of lower socioeconomic level families differ from food at upper class birthday parties?
  • How does the nutritional value and quantity of the food provided vary between socioeconomic levels?
  • How do the perceptions of party food change amongst children of different socioeconomic levels?
  • How does the food portion of the celebration take place? i.e. Do they eat whenever they are hungry, or all at once? Do they sit down, or snack and walk around? Is it buffet-style or one plate for each guest? Are seconds frowned upon or encouraged?

We recommend that the Network further investigate children’s perceptions and expectations surrounding birthday parties.

  • What are children’s opinions of birthday food?
  • What birthday food do children look forward to and expect?
  • What birthday food do children feel is necessary at a party to ensure it is a proper birthday party?

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