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The reason you should make time to cook with your kids
Americans are spending more money in restaurants than grocery stores, a trend that worries health professionals, who say families are healthier when they eat meals prepared at home. - photo by Jennifer Graham
For the first time, Americans are spending more money in restaurants than at grocery stores, a trend that worries health professionals.

Studies have shown we consume more calories when we eat out and not just when we're eating fast food. Even a leisurely dinner at a high-end restaurant typically delivers more salt, sugar and fat than meals cooked and consumed at home.

For a nation battling record-high levels of obesity, spending patterns reported in 2015 by the Commerce Department suggest that both the restaurant and weight-loss industries have sunny days ahead. "We know the way we're eating now is not good for weight or health in the long term. But I think eating out is a big part of American life and is likely to continue to be that way," said Julia Wolfson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health.

But Wolfson, a former chef and the lead author of a 2013 study on how food cooked at home differs from food prepared in restaurants, said a few substantive changes in public policy as well as tweaks in how families operate can make a big difference in the nation's health.

Cooking is a complex behavior, and its more than a collection of technical skills. It involves time management, planning skills and budgeting skills, and any effort to promote cooking needs to account for that, Wolfson said.

In other words, Americans' increasing reliance on restaurants to feed our families isn't just because we work long hours and crave pizza, even though both of those factors figure in.

Eat out, eat more

The decline of the family meal cooked at home is, in part, a consequence of more women in the workforce. Whether single or married, women do more cooking than men, and the more hours women work, the less they cook, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Given that, the increase in restaurant spending isnt surprising, said Cassie Story, a registered dietician and nutritionist in Phoenix who works with people who have had bariatric surgery because of obesity. Were such a fast-paced culture, there are not many nuclear families left, and even then parents are working multiple jobs, Story said.

While preparing food at home tends to be better for us than dining out, Story said she is encouraged by the growth of businesses like Blue Apron, which deliver high quality, pre-measured ingredients so people can prepare healthy meals at home in less time, and also by the number of restaurants that are advertising healthier fare.

But she notes that, technically, cooking means combining two ingredients. If you combine a box of enriched pasta with a jar of spaghetti sauce, you are technically cooking at home, she said. If your definition of home cooking is waffles and hot dogs, you're not doing better than the parent sitting in the drive-through line. And many people buy the right ingredients, but wind up throwing out vegetables that rotted in the refrigerator because they were too busy to prepare them; the pizza business thrives because of them.

Some analysts have suggested the Commerce Department numbers do not foretell a sea change in Americans eating habits, noting that many people buy groceries at stores like Wal-Mart and Target, which aren't included in supermarket statistics.

Then again, the Commerce Department doesn't analyze whether people are buying ingredients for cooking at supermarkets, or filling take-out containers at the stores' ready-made food bars.

Its interesting, but what it means in the long-term, we wont know for another two decades, Story said.

Past studies have shown patterns, however.

Middle-income Americans eat more at fast-food restaurants than low-income or high-income people because they have more disposable income, and also, because such restaurants are more likely to be clustered in the suburbs where they live, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Population Health Management.

Low-income families eat out less because they can't afford it; high-income families can, but when they eat out, they typically choose higher-quality restaurants.

Adolescents consumption of soft drinks doubles when they're away from home, and people of all sizes eat more when they eat out, because of larger portions and richer ingredients, among other reasons.

Various factors such as longer dining time, socializing and greater variety might contribute to excess calorie intake when eating in a full-service restaurant. A comprehensive policy intervention is warranted to target Americans overall dining-out behavior rather than fast-food consumption alone, researcher Ruopeng An, of the University of Illinois, wrote in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Wolfsons 2013 study found that people who cooked dinner at home more than they ate out not only consumed fewer calories, and smaller amounts of fat and sugar, but were less likely to rely on frozen foods when cooking and less likely to choose fast food when they did eat out. They also ate fewer calories when they ate out than those who ate at restaurants regularly did. In short, they ate more healthfully in multiple ways.

A former chef, Wolfson is a fan of restaurants, but says many people dont realize that even if theyre ordering something healthy say, wild-caught salmon or free-range chicken that it may still be worse for you than food cooked at home. Theres a reason restaurant food tastes so good, and it often involves butter, sugar and cream.

It would be shocking to a lot of customers how restaurant foods are really prepared. Thats not a horrible thing as someone who loves food and fine dining, theres definitely a place for this. But preparing food yourself is usually better for you. Home cooks dont cook the way that restaurant cooks do," Wolfson said.

Finding the time

But who has the time?

The USDA found that stay-at-home mothers spent 70 minutes a day on meal preparation. Women who worked part-time spent 53 to 56 minutes, and women who worked full-time spent 38 to 46 minutes cooking.

Cornell University researchers found in 2009 that long working hours and irregular schedules were linked to difficulties in maintaining a family meal time, getting takeout or skipping meals altogether, and resulted in not only poor nutrition, but the loss of quality family time.

To combat this, the researchers urged employers to offer flexible schedules for parents that would allow them to be home in time to prepare a family meal, and to offer mini-markets in the workplace where employees can buy fresh fruits and vegetables to take home.

For parents, they suggest partnering with neighbors, friends or family members to share shopping and cooking tasks; reducing childrens after-school and evening activities; planning and cooking meals in advance; and getting the whole family, even young children, involved in preparing the meal.

Wolfson adds that schools can help, too, by teaching children basic cooking skills.

Its important for people to have the tools and means to eat a healthful diet. That means putting into place measures that make fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy ingredients affordable for everyone, helping people have more time so they can cook more frequently at home, and making sure they have the skill set to do it, she said. It doesnt have to be fancy, you dont have to cook like a chef, to reap the benefits of home cooking.