NUTRITION
January 16, 2017

Dinner In A Box?

Yes, lots of us are short on time. But if prepared foods are your only meal plan, it's time to make a change.

If you’re a parent and you can’t cook, don’t have time to cook or are too tired to cook, then your pantry is probably stocked with all sorts of cans and boxes, and your freezer may be bulging with frozen dinners. However, your diet and that of your kids is probably higher in calories and fat and lower in nutrients than it should be.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Duke University set out to understand why parents rely on prepackaged processed foods in spite of the fact that a steady diet of these foods contributes to poor nutrition. Saving time was a big factor, but there were other reasons, too.

For children who are exposed early in life to prepackaged, processed foods that require no preparation, these may indeed be the only kind of food they will eat as they grow up.

Convenience foods are popular because they don’t take a lot of time or energy to prepare, and they are easy for people with limited cooking skills. The drawback is that they are generally not as nutritious as a home-cooked meal. Packaged, processed foods tend to contain more calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

Families enrolled in the study were visited by trained staff who administered a Home Food Inventory as well as a psychosocial questionnaire. Parents gave the following reasons for buying prepackaged, processed foods:

  • I don’t have time to prepare other foods. (57 percent)
  • My family really likes them. (49 percent)
  • They are easy for my child to prepare. (33 percent)
  • They are inexpensive. (27 percent)
  • I don’t know what else to make. (22 percent)
  • They are the only thing my whole family will eat. (11 percent)
  • The findings from the study are concerning for several reasons. First, the use of prepackaged, processed meals pretty much means that fresh fruits and vegetables will not be part of the meal. Second, when convenience foods were readily available in homes, so were other less nutritious snack foods. Finally, parents' reliance on prepackaged, processed foods for ease of preparation suggests they are likely poor at meal planning and lack cooking skills.

    When parents do not know how to plan and prepare meals this can become a serious problem. For children who are exposed early in life to prepackaged, processed foods that require no preparation, these may indeed be the only kind of food they will eat as they grow up. Lead author, Melissa Horning, is more encouraging. She sees these deficits as modifiable and expects that further research will test ways to improve parents' skills and abilities.

    The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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