Profile: Dr. Lara Descartes

Exploring How Children’s Picture Books Depict Food

Dr. Lara Descartes and a colleague interested in child development, Dr. Jane Goldman (University of Connecticut) became interested in food depictions in children’s books. Many studies have investigated how foods are presented on children’s television. Results indicate that a high percentage of the depictions are for “unhealthy” foods. Given that books are young children’s most consumed medium following television, “we thought the topic definitely deserved attention, especially as parents can moderate the message in a book more than they can a television program.”

Descartes and her co-author studied a sample of 100 picture books distributed by Scholastic Books, finding 69 that depicted food. They coded food depictions for how centrally a food was presented, and whether it was presented with positive, neutral or negative emotional affect. Among the key findings:

  • Sweet baked goods were high in both centrality and positive affect
  • Vegetables and fruits were high in centrality but most often neutral in affect
  • Ice cream was associated with positive outcomes

When presented at both national and international meetings, the research has generated considerable interest. As well as discussing the findings with parents and teachers, Descartes reports, “We would like to reach a wider audience, especially children’s book authors and editors, to help them to consider the food messages they promote.”