In a tight economy, with fewer jobs, many people end up working harder and sacrificing more to stay employed. A new study finds that one of those sacrifices is sometimes our own nutrition and the nutrition of our family as well.
While prior studies have implicated working mothers in providing less healthy family food environments, this is one of the first studies of family nutrition to look at fathers — in particular a population of urban fathers, who face higher rates of unemployment and under-employment. According to lead author Katherine Bauer, an assistant professor of public health and researcher at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, the study is also one of the first to look at work/family conflict for both parents and to focus on families of adolescents.
Mothers employed full-time “reported fewer family meals, more frequent fast food for family meals, less frequent encouragement of their adolescents’ healthful eating, lower fruit and vegetable intake and less time spent on food preparation, compared to part-time and not-employed mothers,” said Bauer. Meanwhile, the only difference among fathers by employment status was that full-time employed fathers reported significantly fewer hours of food preparation than part-time or not working fathers. However, regardless of employment status, mothers were spending more hours on food preparation than fathers.
When looking at the role of work-life stress, for both moms and dads greater stress levels appeared to interfere with healthful eating opportunities. For example, parents experiencing high levels of work-life stress reported having one and a half fewer family meals per week and eating half a serving less of fruits and vegetables per day, as compared to parents with low levels of work-life stress.
Bauer suggests that spouses, partners and teenagers chip in to help with grocery shopping and preparing and serving healthy family meals.
“We need to teach kids how to cook,” said Bauer. “We know if kids have cooking skills and good eating habits, not only will they be healthier, but as adults they’ll put those skills to use to feed their own children more healthfully.” 
While this theory by Ms. Bauer is great idea she fails to consider that most children these days are just as “busy” as their parents. Society seems to dictate that we always have to be doing something “productive,” and this includes children as well. Why do kids need schedules, particularly in the summer? Summer used to be reserved for kids to ride their bikes, swim at the lake, and just play with their friends in general. I believe this “down time” is incredibly important for the overall development of a child and allows for a window of creative spark and personal growth. Cooking and/or preparing meals would provide an ideal opportunity for children to become more invested in their nutrition knowledge.
When I was in high school my dad used to give me a “food allowance” and I was tasked with going to the grocery store to “stock” up for the week. I would drag my younger brother along with me. We were both reluctant and resisted at first but after a while we actually started to like it especially all the curious looks we had from the employees and other shoppers, “what are those boys doing without their mother?” You may have expected us to load our cart with cookies, soda, and chips but I can legitimately say that we rarely if ever bought snack food.
I knew the meals we were going to prepare for the week and would make a list of what was needed and that’s what we bought. So I developed the ability to plan a meal and prepare it with raw materials from scratch. It also taught us how to maximize our dollars because my dad would give us a set amount and we didn’t want to come up short or else we wouldn’t have anything to eat at weeks end.
I didn’t buy prepared foods; we bought the ingredients separately and created our own meals. We had a few recipes provided by our mother but for the most part we just “figured” things out and built ourselves a fine reputation as amateur chefs. That was an extremely important time in my life because it required me to be self-sufficient and it’s a lesson that stuck. And while my brother did more eating than cooking, he was exposed to it at such a young age that he’s a natural in the kitchen.
I am guessing that most teenagers can’t put together a complete meal and why should they if they’ve never been expected to. But it can be a valuable lesson that serves them well into adulthood. I have been making my own meals since I was 12 years old and even after being married for nearly two years; I still do most of the cooking, not because I have to rather because I enjoy it. My brother is married with two kids, ages 9 and 5, works a full-time job and he is the house cook.
I don’t know if it was my dad’s intention for us to acquire this skill, though upon reflection years later he was an extremely savvy man, but he worked hard on the farm all day and quite frankly he needed us to do the job. Imagine the stress levels in a home when you sit down with your dad and brother for a home cooked meal… Needless to say stress was greatly reduced and the time we spent together developed our relationships and my dad always knew what was going on in our lives. So as you can see it wasn’t just about the specific skill we acquired through grocery shopping. There were many other benefits that branched out for us as young men due to this early exposure.
According to the Health and Human Services National Survey of Children’s Health-and a review of 17 studies published in the June 2011 issue of Pediatrics found that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier eating and dietary patterns than those who share fewer meals. “Research suggests kids who regularly eat dinner with their families are also more emotionally stable and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol,” say Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist