The Illusion of Choice: Mothers' Persistent Optimizing to Feed Their Preschool Children
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Mothers play a vital role in providing healthy food choices for their preschool children. This role has become more complex in the present obesity-producing environment that has contributed to the increasing prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in Canada. Childhood overweight and obesity is a significant public health issue in Nova Scotia where the percentage is higher than the national average. The purpose of this study was to generate a theoretical understanding of the process in which 18 mothers living within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality engaged while making food choices for their preschool children. Constructivist grounded theory methodology informed by sensitising constructs from symbolic interaction and the socio-environmental health promotion perspective facilitated a multilevel exploration of the factors that affect mothers’ food choice practices for their preschoolers. Data collection took place over 16 months. Thirty-five interviews were completed. Grounded theory methods were used to analyze the data and a substantive theory of how mothers made food choices for their preschool children was co-constructed with the participants. The substantive theory, Persistent Optimizing, consists of three main integrated conceptual categories. In the first conceptual category, Acknowledging Contextual Constraints, mothers acknowledged various individual, interpersonal, and socio-environmental contextual factors that hindered their ability to make intended, healthier food choices for their children. In the second conceptual category, Stretching Boundaries, mothers developed and enacted moderating strategies to lessen the impact of contextual constraints, thereby increasing the number of food choices available to them. In the third conceptual category, Strategic Positioning, mothers developed and enacted a variety of optimizing strategies to get them closer to making the optimal food choice for their children in a given situation. Mothers in this study struggled continuously with varying degrees of success to provide the foods they believed their children needed. The findings suggest that in practice, policy, research, and education, community health nurses must work independently and collaboratively at all levels of influence to facilitate, mediate, and advocate for social, economic, and physical environments that improve mothers’ ability to make food choices that promote their children’s health and reduce their risk of becoming overweight and obese.