Parents, what do you serve for dinner most often?

    A. Fast food picked up on the way home from work
    B. Boxed or frozen convenience meals
    C. Home-delivered pizza
    D. A well-balanced home-cooked meal
    E. Whatever! Everyone fends for themselves.

You probably know that “D” is the healthiest answer, but you may not know that meals cooked at home have an impact that goes far beyond their nutritional value.

Parents who spend more time in food preparation have children who make healthier food choices, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have found. We all have days when cooking food for our families is a chore we'd like to skip, but it really does offer long-term dividends.

Researchers at Penn State had about 60 children between the ages of four and six visit their lab. The kids were able to eat as much or as little of any of the foods they laid out. The treats included a range of foods like chicken nuggets, chocolate chip cookies, grapes, and broccoli.

The time parents spend preparing food at home also influences kids’ food choices away from home.

The children were allowed eat whatever they wanted without any adult or parental oversight. Their choices were recorded by observers hidden behind a one-way mirror.

While the children were enjoying their snacks, their parents answered questions about their child’s food likes, dislikes, and eating habits, the home food environment, and the family’s socioeconomic situation.

What the researchers found was that children whose parents spent more time cooking at home chose healthier foods compared to kids whose parents ordered in or ate out more often. The fact that the children who ate healthier were away from home and had no parental supervision led the researchers to conclude that the time parents spend preparing food at home also influences kids’ food choices away from home.

“In general, research shows that children tend to eat inadequate amounts of nutrient-rich foods while eating large amounts of sugary and fatty foods,” said Catherine Shehan, lead author of the study, in a statement. “It's encouraging to see that parents can possibly affect the quality of their children's food choices outside the home by spending more time cooking.”

The message for parents is quite clear: If you want your kids to eat better and be equipped to choose healthier foods when they aren’t with you, spend the time to prepare food at home.

That doesn’t mean parents need to toil for hours in the kitchen every day. What's important for children is seeing their mom or dad prepare meals rather than bringing home fast food, microwaving a frozen meal, or ordering pizza.

Healthy meals are possible even with parents’ busy schedules. Yes, it will take a little planning but there are many resources available for those who need help to get started.

Many websites provide recipes for quick and healthy meals, including crock pot meals or a month’s worth of menus. Both can be modified as needed to meet the family’s preferences.

“Once a month meals” — where you prepare and freeze a month of meals in one day — are catching on, and there are websites with instructions for that, too.

Browse through a book store or library for cookbooks or meal planning guides. Watch for local universities and hospitals to offer healthy cooking classes.

Kids learn about the importance of food and good eating when they see a parent planning meals, shopping for food, and cooking. Let kids help with the planning and preparation. Ask them for ideas and discuss healthy options. Give them age-appropriate chores when preparing meals. These activities improve the odds that a child will learn to eat and to choose healthy foods.

Shehan added, “Even after controlling for family income and whether or not children had a parent at home full time, we found that children whose parents spend more time cooking make better choices. Our food preferences develop early in life, so getting young children to eat nutritious foods can help them stay healthy in the long run.”

The research was presented recently at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in Seattle, Washington.