TIME: A key ingredient in healthier eating
The home-cooked family meal used to be a cherished ritual. Research has found that regular family meals are associated with healthier eating habits, particularly for children1. That changed with the trend toward a service economy, the emergence of two wage-earner families, and multiple demands on both adults’ and on children’s time. Not only has the time that families spend together diminished, but the amount of time that Americans spend on food preparation and cleanup has dropped to no more than 33 minutes per day2.
Limited time available for meal preparation at home may be one reason for less-than-healthy diets. Time poverty was prevalent among working parents earning low wages in the United States. Increasingly, low- and middle-income working parents have been relying on restaurant takeout for the family meal. Even those parents who valued healthy family meals often served their children foods that were convenient and easy to prepare3. Fast food pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken, and hamburgers have become a part of the family dinner4. Based on analyses of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 2003-8), some dinners in the US were composed entirely of ready-to-eat finger foods that could be consumed without utensils. Examples include pizza, tacos, French fries, potato chips, fish sticks, sandwiches, tacos, hamburgers, and chicken drumsticks.
New Research on Time Use
This study examined food-related time use, food spending and eating habits of 1,319 adults in the Seattle Obesity Study (SOS)5. Participants in SOS completed telephone surveys on diets and health and were asked how much time per day, on average, they spent preparing meals, cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Participants were also asked how often they ate meals away from home and their food spending. Diet quality was based on selfreported consumption of vegetables, green salad or whole fruit versus fats or sweets.
People who spent the least amount of time cooking home meals tended to be working adults who emphasized convenience. Spending less than one hour per day on food preparation at home led to higher use of fast food restaurants and more money spent on food away from home. By contrast, younger married women with families and higher incomes were more likely to spend greater than two hours per day preparing meals at home.
Significantly, the time spent on food preparation at home was associated with higher-quality diets, based on more frequent consumption of vegetables, salads, whole fruits and fruit juices. People who spent more time on meal preparation at home spent less money on eating away from home: per person expenditures on eating out dropped from $22/week to $15/week.
New Research on Family Meals
Spending more time on preparing food at home may be an important way to develop healthier dietary habits, but who is sitting down to a home-cooked meal? Using data from the NHANES Consumer Module 2007-2008, this study examined what demographic groups in the US were most likely to sit down together to eat a balanced family dinner prepared and consumed at home. For all meals (including dinner), younger children were more likely to consume meals with their family on a regular basis. At dinner times, older adults were more likely to consume homecooked meals than younger adults.
Family income and household size were also associated with regularly consuming meals as a family. Low income families were more likely to frequently consume an at-home cooked dinner. Mexican-American and other Hispanic adults were also more likely to consume an at-home cooked dinner than were non-Hispanic whites. In fact, contrary to expectations, it was large families with lower incomes and less education who were most likely to cook and eat at home on a regular basis.
Achieving a healthy diet requires more than just knowledge about healthy foods. New research indicates that allocating more time to prepare meals at home may be the key to healthier and lowcost diets. If spending time cooking and enjoying meals together is part of a healthy lifestyle then it’s important to enable these behaviors, for example, by teaching cooking skills to children and promoting family-friendly policies at workplaces. At the same time, the food industry and retailers ought to help families identify fresh foods that are affordable, nutritious and convenient to use.
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