Coping With Household Stress in the 1990S: Who Uses &Quot;Convenience Foods&Quot; and Do They Help?

Judith J. Madill-Marshall, Carleton University
Louise Heslop, Carleton University
Linda Duxbury, Carleton University
[ to cite ]:
Judith J. Madill-Marshall, Louise Heslop, and Linda Duxbury (1995) ,"Coping With Household Stress in the 1990S: Who Uses &Quot;Convenience Foods&Quot; and Do They Help?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 729-734.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 729-734


Judith J. Madill-Marshall, Carleton University

Louise Heslop, Carleton University

Linda Duxbury, Carleton University

Given the time pressures and stresses experienced by many women and men in coping with the pressures associated with work and family, and the importance of up-to-date knowledge of food consumption patterns, the purpose of this paper is to examine the use of convenience foods by women in families in the 1990s. Results show that women tend to be either fairly heavy users or non-users of the 6 types of convenience foods studied. A number of variables related to both the woman's work and family situation were found to be related to extent of use of these foods.

Much research attention has been paid to the changing roles of women over the past 20 years. In particular, researchers have examined the impact of women's employment outside the home on the lives of women who face the challenges of managing both work and family roles. Much of this research has reported high stress levels among working women largely attributable to the difficulties of coping with multiple roles in day to day life (Gupta and Jenkins 1985; Lewis and Cooper 1988). A mounting body of research is documenting the existence of a "second shift" for employed women who devote significantly more hours per day to unpaid household work than do employed men. For example, employed women with a partner and children under age 5 spend 4.9 hours per day doing unpaid household chores compared with 2.4 hour per day spent by their male counterparts (Barr, 1993). A major part of the unpaid work performed in virtually all households is the purchase and preparation of food (Marshall et. al., 1994).

Recognizing that women have traditionally been responsible for food shopping and preparation in the household, consumer researchers have demonstrated an interest in the effect of wives' employment on the purchase of food products with a focus on convenience food items (Bellante and Foster 1984; Bryant 1989; Douglas 1976; Jackson et al. 1985; Nickols and Fox 1983; Reilly 1982; Schaninger and Allen 1981; Roberts and Wortzel 1979; 1984; Strober and Weinberg 1980; Venkatesh 1980; Weinberg and Winer 1983).

The underlying philosophy behind this research has been that women who work outside the home experience greater time pressures than women who do not and therefore will consume in ways to alleviate this time pressure i.e. buy time (Jackson et al. 1985; Strober and Weinberg 1980; Reilly 1982). However, a quick glance at this research shows that much of it is very dated. Most of this research was conducted at a time when traditional family forms were still the norm. Strober and Weinberg (1980) and Weinberg and Winer (1983) based their findings on 1977 survey data. Bryant (1989) used data gathered in 1978-79, and Bellante and Foster (1984) used 1972-73 Consumer Expenditure data. The Roberts and Wortzel (1979) ground breaking work was also done in the 1970's. Social-cultural expectations have changed in the past 2 decades as the dual-earner family became the norm. It is probable, therefore, that working women in the 1990's will have different experiences, attitudes and responses to work and family roles and employ different consumption strategies than did women in the 1970's.

Given the need for food industry marketing practitioners to target "convenience" type foods to the most likely users and reach these consumers with communications based on a realistic understanding of current consumer behaviour, the purpose of this paper is to examine the following questions:

(1)What types of "convenience" foods are consumed in the household of the 1990's to cope with food shopping and food preparation roles? Who are the heavy users of such foods?

(2)How much total meal preparation has been relegated outside the household? Who are the heavy buyers of meals prepared outside the household?

(3)Is the purchase of meals and the use of convenience foods related to work demands and time pressures and to stress and life satisfaction?

(4)Do those who enjoy the food-related tasks cope differently than those who do not?


Consumer Research and Food Consumption in Families

A review of the marketing and consumer behaviour literature shows that consumer researchers have been interested in the effect of wives' employment on three main areas of food consumption: (1) ownership of durables (Strober and Weinberg 1980; Weinberg and Winer 1983; Nickols and Fox 1983; Reilly 1982; Bryant 1989), (2) food expenditure patterns, with a focus on convenience food items (Douglas 1976; Jackson et al. 1985; Nickols and Fox 1983; Reilly 1982; Schaninger and Allen 1981; Strober and Weinberg 1980; Venkatesh 1980), and (3) purchase of services (Bellante and Foster 1984; Joag, Gentry and Hopper 1985; Nickols and Fox 1983). Previous research reveals a very complex picture, but, three key observations emerge from this literature.

First, as noted above, it is apparent that most of the consumer research on food shopping and preparation is very dated. This lack of recent research represents a glaring gap in consumer behaviour knowledge about current consumption practices and patterns in a very important consumer market - the food market. Evidence shows that food expenditures accounted for 16% of total household expenditures after personal taxes. Food consumption therefore represents the second largest category of expenses for Canadian families after shelter, for which Canadian families spend an average of 22% of their incomes after taxes (Statistics Canada, November 15, 1993). Further, the average total household food expenditure rose 22% between 1986 and 1992, resulting in an average household expenditure of $110 per week (Statistics Canada, December 2, 1993).

Secondly, it must be noted that food products have changed enormously over the past 20 years. Much of today's supermarket shelves are occupied by "convenience" type products that did not exist or existed in only very basic forms 20 years ago. For example, the number of prepared dinners and prepared meats (i.e. frozen Lasagna, frozen chicken Kiev or cabbage rolls) has increased dramatically, while the development of prepared sauces and mixes such as "Memories of Hong Kong", "Chicken Tonight" represent the development of a sophisticated category of products that one adds to basic ingredients to create exotic meals very quickly. Convenience foods in the 1990's appear to strike a new balance between decreasing time and effort required and increasing the quality of the final food product. Given the time pressures of today's consumers, it is necessary to examine the use of these "convenience" type of products in North American households in the 1990's.

Third, many studies have compared working women to non-working women B a division found to be too simplistic in both the consumer behaviour and in the work-family literature (Bartos 1978; Reilly 1982; Schaninger and Allen 1981; Venkatesh 1980; Yogev and Brett 1985). As Schaninger and Allen (1981) found, work status or work involvement may be a key factor related to consumption strategies. Venkatesh (1980) reported significant differences on various demographic, life-style, and magazine readership characteristics among women identified as traditionalists, moderates and feminists.

The objectives of this paper are to examine the relationships between use of convenience foods and the purchase of meals prepared outside the household with (a) a number of predictor variables including (i) work status, (ii) role overload, (iii) role orientations, (iv) work involvement and hours in work, (v) education level, (vi) respondent and household incomes, (vii) stage of the family life cycle, as well as (b) two outcome variables - (i) stress and (ii) life satisfaction. A brief justification for including each of these variables is given below.

Work Status. The literature suggests that stress is experienced differently by families depending on the type of employment they are engaged in (Portner 1983). Schaninger and Allen (1981) found significant differences in food consumption across wives' occupation-status groups. They found that lower status families consumed convenience foods more frequently than other families, while higher status families tended to avoid instant convenience foods but put a greater emphasis on the evening meal as a stress-relieving pseudo-leisure activity. While Bartos (1978) and Douglas (1976) suggested that working wives will shop at fewer grocery stores and more convenience stores than non-working wives, Schaninger and Allen (1981) did not find support for this. In this study, the type of work performed by women was broadly classified into two categories - the professional/managerial career category, and the technical, clerical, semi-skilled earner category. Previous research has shown that each of these categories exhibits different psychological involvement and time spent on the work role (Yogev and Brett, 1985).

Role Overload. Since role overload can result in increased stress and decreased life satisfaction (Gupta and Jenkins 1985; Repetti, Matthews and Waldron 1989), it is expected that women will try to minimize these effects by utilizing more convenience foods. Reilly (1982) found moderate support for his model showing role overload as a result of wives' work involvement leading to purchase of more convenience foods and to ownership of time-saving durables. In this study, role overload was measured using Reilly's (1982) role overload scale.

Task Enjoyment. In households where the respondent does not enjoy food preparation, this task may be delegated to the market more often, whereas in households where the respondent enjoys the activity, she may employ it as a stress reducing activity (Hendrix and Qualls 1984; Roberts and Wortzel 1979). Enjoyment of the food preparation role was measured by a summed scale of six Likert scale items, and enjoyment of food shopping was measured by a summed scale of five Likert scale items.

Work Involvement and Hours in Work. Work involvement, defined as the extent to which a person identifies psychologically with work roles and the importance of work to an individual's self concept (Yogev and Brett 1985; Lodahl and Kehner 1965), has received much research attention in the dual-earner family literature and some attention in the consumer behaviour literature (Joag, Gentry and Hopper 1985). Schaninger and Allen (1981) found that work involvement may be a key factor explaining variation in consumption patterns. Earlier consumer research that focused on the differences in consumption between women employed outside the home and those who were not, can be seen as laying the foundation for our understanding of the effects of hours of work and work involvement on food consumption patterns.

This research suggested that working and nonworking wives differ significantly in their perception of time pressures (Strober and Weinberg 1980), baking practices and price checking on grocery purchases (Strober and Weinberg (1980), and meals away from home (Nichols and Fox 1983). Douglas (1976) found that working wives tended to shop less frequently than non-working wives and made greater use of husbands in shopping activities. Jackson, (1985) reported that working wives tended to have a greater dislike for food shopping and cooking that seemed to stem primarily from time considerations. Nickols and Fox (1983) reported that employed women used more time buying strategies including purchased child care and meals away from home. Bellante and Foster (1984) reported that the number of hours a wife worked was positively associated with expenditure on food away from home, child care, and total services purchased.

It is expected that the higher the involvement with work and the longer hours one spends in employment, the more likely one will use convenience food products and consume meals purchased outside the home. Work involvement was measured using the Lodahl and Kehner (1965) scale. Hours in work was measured by asking for reports on hours spent in paid employment per week.

Education, Incomes and Stage of the Family Lifecycle. The literature indicates that two-earner parents experience more stress than nonparents and that the pressures are especially salient for parents of preschool children (Lewis and Cooper 1988; Googins and Burden 1987). Previous research in the consumer behaviour field has shown the importance of controlling for education, income, and stage of the family life cycle when attempting to examine how consumption patterns are related to work status (Strober and Weinberg 1980; Rubin, Riney and Molina 1990; Weinberg and Winer 1983). Measures of these variables were constructed from standard demographic questions.

Life Satisfaction and Perceived Stress. Previous consumer research has not examined the link between using convenience foods and life satisfaction and stress. This research examines how the level of usage of various types of convenience foods is associated with stress and life satisfaction levels. Perceived stress was measured via the 14-item Cohen, Kamarck, Miermelstekim (1982) scale. Life satisfaction was measured using the 5-item Diener (1985) measure.

Convenience Foods Purchased. On the basis of the qualitative phase of this research, a 6-item typology of convenience foods was used in this research. Respondents were asked how often they use: (1) prepared dinners that require only cooking, (2) purchased prepared meat (entrees that require only cooking), (3) prepared or frozen vegetables, (4) prepared or frozen baked goods, (5) mixes (cakes, biscuits, muffins etc.), (6) prepared items to be used in recipes (purchased sauces, hamburger helper type mixes). They were also asked how many dinners were purchased outside the home.


Data were part of a recently completed study on the consumption strategies women use to help manage the pressures they experience in work and family and the outcomes associated with each of these strategies. In the first phase of this research, twenty semi-structured depth interviews were conducted with women in their own homes. The second phase of the study gathered quantitative data on the food shopping and preparation practices and strategies used in Canadian families. During this phase a sample of women in five government departments were asked to complete a seventeen page self-administered questionnaire and return it using a postage paid self addressed return envelope. Eight hundred ninety-three responses were obtained for a response rate of 57%.




Sample Description

To minimize the influence of non-measured confounds, and to make the population as homogenous as possible, the sample for the current study was limited to include only women who were engaged in full-time paid employment, were married or living with a significant other and who had children who were 18 years of age or less living at home at least 50% of the time. A total of 365 women met these sampling criteria.

Forty percent of these women were employed in managerial or professional careers (coded as careers for analysis below). Sixty percent were employed in technical, administrative, sales, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour occupations (coded as earners for analysis below). The average age of the sample was 36 years, with 27% having high school or less, 23% community college and 50% with some university or higher qualification as their education. Approximately 28% of the women had one child, 49% had two, and 23% had three or more. Twenty-five percent of the respondents earned less than $30,000, 65% earned between $30,000 to 59,999, while only 10% earned $60,000 or more. Household incomes varied with five percent earning less than $30,000, 31% earning between $30,000 to 59,999, 36% earning between $60,000 to 89,999, and 28% earning $ 90,000 and more. Comparing these demographic characteristics to the Statistics Canada 1991 census reports for Ottawa show that this sample was demographically very similar to the population of working women with two exceptions: the women in the sample earned higher incomes and were more highly educated than average working women.

Use of Convenience Foods

Respondents were asked to indicate how often six types of "convenience" foods were used in their households. Table 1, which presents a summary of this information, indicates that there is considerable use of most categories of convenience type foods as between 30-40% of households use every category of products weekly or more (except frozen vegetables and mixes). Prepared or frozen vegetables appear to be used most frequently, (52.5% use weekly or more), while mixes are used the least (17.9% use weekly or more). Almost half of the study respondents reported that they never or almost never used frozen or prepared baked goods (46.3%) or mixes (46.6%) or prepared meats (44.2%). About 1/3 never use prepared dinners (37.8%), or prepared items added to foods (35.5%).

Respondents were also asked to report the number of times in the week prior to the study, that each family member consumed a meal that was purchased from a restaurant or deli. To account for differences in household size, mean numbers of purchased meals per person in the household was calculated. The median number of purchased meals consumed per week per household member was 2.2.

Convenience Foods and Purchased Meals: Predictors and Outcomes

Relationships between variables noted in the objectives of the research and use of six types of convenience foods are reported below and summarized in Table 2.

Work Status. Analysis of variance showed that career women use significantly more frozen or prepared baked goods than do earner women (t=2.08, p=.04); but they use significantly fewer mixes (t=-2.47, p=.01). There is no significant difference between the two groups in the use of any of the other types of convenience foods or in the number of purchased meals consumed. So, there is little support in this study for the earlier findings of Schaninger and Allen (1981) that work status was related to major differences in the use of convenience foods.



Role Overload. Role overload is positively correlated with use of prepared dinners (r=.10, p=.04) and use of prepared items in foods prepared at home(r=.11, p=.02).

Enjoyment of Food Preparation and Grocery Shopping. Enjoyment of food preparation is negatively related to usage of five of the six types of convenience foods, including use of prepared dinners (r=-.22, p=.00), prepared meats (r=-.16, p=.00), prepared vegetables (r=-.12, p=.01), prepared baked goods (r=-.14, p=.00), and prepared items added to food (r=-.10, p=.03). Similarly, enjoyment of grocery shopping is related to five of the types of convenience foods, including prepared dinners (r=-.12, p=.00), prepared meats (r=-.08, p=.02), prepared vegetables (r=-.09, p=.01), mixes (r=-.08, p=.04), and prepared items added to food (r=-.10, p=.01). These findings support the results of Hendrix and Quall (1984) concerning the importance of role orientation and enjoyment in affecting shopping behavior.

Work Involvement and Hours Spent in Paid Work. Work involvement is negatively correlated with use of prepared dinners (r=-.08, p=.02), and with use of mixes (r=-.13, p=.01) but positively with the number of purchased meals consumed (r=.09, p=.06). On the other hand, the more hours women spend in paid employment, the more prepared dinners they buy (r=.11, p=.02) and the more meals are purchased outside the home (r=.14, p=.00). These findings agree with earlier research on the significance of these two variables in explaining at least some types of convenience food consumption.

Education, Incomes, and Stage of the Family Life Cycle. Education is positively correlated with consumption of purchased meals (r=.16, p=.00), use of prepared meats (r=.10, p=.03), prepared baked goods (r=.10, p=.03) and negatively with use of mixes (r=-.10, p=.03). Both respondent and family incomes are positively correlated with consumption of purchased meals (r=.24, p=.00; r=.18, p=.00), use of prepared baked goods (r=.15, p =.00; r=.14, p=.00), but household income is negatively related with use of mixes (r=-.11, p=.02). Analysis of variance showed that stage of the family life cycle is related to use of prepared dinners. The highest usage is found in families with children aged 6-12, and under 6 years of age; lowest usage is found in families with children between 12 and 18 years of age. Consumption of purchased meals is also related to the stage of the family life cycle. Highest consumption is reported in households with children under age 6 (4.0), then in families with children 6-12 (2.6), and lowest in families with children aged 12-18 (2.0). Again, these results are in agreement with earlier research which has found that the presence and ages of children is highly predictive of convenience food use, and that income and education levels must be taken into account in analyzing consumption patterns.

Stress and Life Satisfaction. Perceived stress is positively related to use of prepared dinners (r=.10, p=.04), prepared items in food (r=.100, p=.03), but negatively with use of prepared baked goods (r=.08, p=.07). Life satisfaction is negatively related to use of many types of convenience foods including prepared dinners (r=-.21, p=.00), prepared vegetables (r=-.12, p=.03), and prepared items added to food (r=-.08, p=.06) but positively related to consumption of purchased dinners (r=.08, p=.02).


This research shows that working women in the 1990s tend to either not use each type of convenience food at all, or to use it quite frequently (weekly or more). The results show clearly that there are relatively high proportions of working women who are high users of each type of convenience food except mixes. However, there are also very high proportions who never or almost never use each type of convenience food (except for frozen vegetables). While there are some women who use each category about monthly, this proportion hovers around 1/4 or less for each category.

Several major patterns can be seen in the overall results. Firstly, it is apparent that all the variables in the study have important links to convenience food usage, suggesting that decisions about the use of these products is intricately linked to the entire life (work and family) circumstances of the woman. It is not just whether she works or not or enjoys cooking or not, but both of these and also how demanding her work is, how fulfilling, how stressful it and family life is, how many children and their ages, how much income there is, etc. However, the most useful predictor is orientation to food-related tasks. If these tasks are seen as pleasurable, even stress-relieving, they are much less likely to be delegated to the marketplace. Rather more cooking and shopping tasks will be done by the woman and convenience food usage of virtually all types, including eating meals prepared outside the home, will be lower.

In terms of the usefulness of convenience foods in overall stress reduction and life satisfaction, there does not seem to be a major impact. Generally, high stress is associated with delegating the whole task to the marketplace, and life satisfaction is negatively related to convenience food use, but, of course, the direction (or even the existence) of causal links can not be addressed in this type of study.

The results also reveal some very interesting patterns of correlates of use of types of convenience foods. Those who are high users of prepared dinners that are just heated in the home before use are earners, rather than career women, with high role overload, high number of hours of work, young children in the home, high stress levels and low life satisfaction, and they do not enjoy food tasks. They appear to be in a very difficult situation, with pressures on both the work and the family sides, and find little pleasure in meal preparation. Their decision appears to be to opt out of meal preparation all together by using "heat and serve" alternatives.

A different alternative is chosen by those women who also have long working hours and small children, but who are career workers with high incomes and education levels. These women are more likely to purchase meals outside the home. They have the resources to do so. This alternative is not associated with dislike of food preparation and food shopping tasks, but is associated with higher life satisfaction.

A similar difference in the choice with regards to baked goods can be seen. In this case, high users of both mixes and prepared baked goods do not enjoy food tasks. So how do they address the problem. Those who are career workers and with higher incomes buy fully prepared or frozen baked goods, whereas earners with more limited incomes and education use mixes instead.

Those who are heavy users of prepared meat entrees dislike food tasks and have higher education levels. Many of these types of food products are relatively new on the market and may appeal to the younger, more upscale "wannabe". "Prepared items used in cooking" follows a similar pattern in correlates to prepared dinners and may be seen as a close substitute.

Finally, prepared/frozen vegetables had the fewest correlates. It is likely that these products are no longer seen as convenience products, but are widely used by all consumers to reduce meal preparation tasks.

Notwithstanding the need for further analyses of the patterns of consumption observed in this research, the authors note several implications for marketing managers that emerge from this study. First, the study supports the need for the food industry to continue development of innovative "convenience" food products which can reduce time spent on food preparation tasks. A very high proportion of working women will continue to seek such products in trying to reduce role overload and stress by decreasing time spent on meal preparation and grocery shopping. Second, the marketing of such products is extremely complicated in the 1990's. Overall, messages targeted to women who do not see food preparation tasks as pleasurable, regardless of their work status, income, age, education and so on, are likely to be most successful. But, as noted in the discussion above, different types of convenience foods are attractive to women in different work/family life situations. Third, it is critical that advertisers recognize the high stress faced by women in the 1990's household and offer solutions aimed at alleviating this stress in effective advertising messages.

Additional research is needed to either support the use of the typology of convenience foods in this study or to develop other ones. This research supported the use of a typology that was built upon the idea that many different food products are currently available that can be labelled as 'convenience' foods for very different reasons. For example, some foods come fully prepared, one simply buys, then consumes them. Others come fully prepared but need to be heated. Others represent only portions of a meal that come prepared and require work at combining them with other foods for a meal. Others come with all the ingredients measured and in one box but require assembling and perhaps cooking in the home. Lastly, others are prepared items to be added to foods being prepared in the home.

Very little previous research has focused on categorizing convenience foods - yet this is an important first step in really understanding food consumption in North America in the 1990's. The authors are continuing the preliminary work reported in this paper by working on developing a theoretical model which will attempt to explain household food consumption strategies used to cope with the myriad of work and family demands facing families in the 1990's.


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