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Back to Qualitative Data

Canadian Ethnographic Study

In order to add a new perspective to the existing data on Canadians’ eating habits, the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition observed what a group of Canadians ate and drank through a series of food-related activities, such as grocery shopping and preparing solo or family meals. This first ethnographic study was conducted online, with the help of food records and photos. So, what did it show?


Would you like to see what consumers eat at home and in what context? What do their kitchens and meals look like? This is what the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition achieved through an ethnographic approach, a research strategy based on observation of a limited number of participants. The study was conducted in the context of daily living, for example at home or through different daily tasks, such as meal preparation. Observation was facilitated by the use of Internet, which allowed participants to send photos of their meals and food environments, as well as their comments on various food-related tasks.

Do the 30 participants follow dietary guidelines and have a healthy diet? The study concluded that Canadian consumers still have a long way to go to integrate the basic principles of healthy eating into their daily menus. Findings of the study include:

  • Numerous skipped meals, meals eaten on the run, and meals that excluded fresh fruits or vegetables;
  • Insufficient intake of Milk and Alternatives, Vegetables and Fruit, and Grain Products, and even less of whole grains;
  • Frequent consumption of sweetened beverages and soft drinks;
  • Excessive intake of caffeine;
  • Lack of portion control.

This survey suggests health professionals need to review their strategies to get nutrition messages across more effectively, and to inspire or motivate individuals to improve their eating habits. Stakeholders will need to review their strategies to help people eat in a more balanced way. For example, they could assist consumers in developing culinary skills for preparing nutritious meals at home, and help them make better choices when eating out.


A total of 30 Canadian participants (18 Anglophone and 12 Francophone) from different demographic backgrounds were selected. Each of them was responsible or co-responsible for grocery purchases for their households. During a 5-day period, focusing on a series of tasks related to buying and preparing foods (buying groceries, preparing meals, setting the table), they took pictures of their kitchens and meals, and described their typical meals, either alone or with other family members. They also filled out a 4-day food record. Everything was done via Internet.

A qualitative analysis was done by a panel of dietitians, using the food records, as well as the photos of family and solo meals.

Main Observations

  • This ethnographic study confirms that taste is the most important factor in food choices.
  • Besides taste, nutrition is an important factor, although convenience is gaining ground and seems to become more important than the nutritional aspect.
  • Lack of time leads to participants turning to convenience foods and retailers selling foods that are more or less processed (restaurants, take-out counters, store-bought ready-made meals, canned foods, etc.).
  • Solo meals were less nutritious than those eaten with the family, containing more prepared/processed foods and fewer Food Guide food groups. Most of the time, these meals were eaten in front of the TV, at work, or in a restaurant.
  • Quebeckers tended to have a more relaxed approach to eating, with more home cooking and a better stocked kitchen.
  • In some homes, food is a way of asserting a lifestyle—some are passionate about cooking and love the social and aesthetic aspects of food. Others give up certain foods (e.g. vegetarians) and some are even committed anti-nutritionists.
  • There is little indication that participants understand what constitutes a healthy diet. Even though they know about the nutrition facts table on food labels, not many understand and use it.
  • A majority of Canadians believe they are very or somewhat knowledgeable about nutrition; yet, this ethnographic study suggests otherwise. Indeed, the study showed: numerous skipped meals, meals eaten on the run, meals that did not include any fresh fruits or vegetables; frequent consumption of sweetened beverages and soft drinks; excessive intake of caffeine; and a lack of portion control.

Qualitative Analysis of Food Records

When analyzing food and meal records, the frequent use of packaged, processed, and convenience foods was noted. Approximately half the participants resorted to restaurant, fast-food, and take-out meals for at least one meal a day. The results observed are shown by food group in the table below.

Food group Food consumption reported in the CCFN study Canada's Food Guide recommendations
Milk and Alternatives Few participants consumed the minimum number of servings recommended. Little milk consumed, with a preference for cheese and yogurt in this category.

2 servings

 including 500 mL (2 cups) of milk for the vitamin D it provides

Vegetables and Fruit Well below the recommended number of servings; 1 to 5 servings a day. Vegetables most often mentioned were: potatoes, salad, and corn. Fresh fruits chosen were seasonal and often eaten as a snack or for dessert.

7 to 10 servings

 including at least 1 dark green and 1 orange vegetable each day

Grain Products Low intake of Grain Products. Very low or non-existent intake of whole grains. Some participants referred to whole-wheat bread, the only whole grain product mentioned.

7 to 10 servings

 including at least half as whole-grain products

Meat and Alternatives Observed consumption patterns were not consistent with CFG recommendations. Frequent intake of processed meats (sausages, deli ham, bacon). Very small amount of legumes consumed. Greater frequency of barbecued foods, possibly due to the month of the year (July).

2 servings

 including at least 2 servings of fish each week, and frequently including alternatives such as legumes and tofu; lean meats and alternatives prepared with little or no fat or salt.

Other Foods Desserts chosen tended to be high in fat: pastries, commercial cakes, cookies, ice cream. High intake of sweetened beverages, fruit-flavoured beverages and soft drinks, especially during meals and snacks. Those who drank diet soft drinks tended to make better food choices. Small daily intake of unsaturated fat.

In Conclusion

Based on the food records and the observations of the panel of dietitians, there seems to be an important gap between Health Canada's nutritional recommendations and foods actually consumed in Canadian homes. Even though consumers say they are informed and care about their health, there is still much work to do to help them improve their daily eating habits.

Limitations of the Study

Although it provides a certain perspective and some interesting insights, qualitative research remains exploratory. Because of the limited sample, recruitment methods, and actual objectives of the study, the observed results cannot be applied to the Canadian population as a whole.

Keywords: Ethnographic study , data on consumption

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