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For most of humankind’s history, food preparation was considered to be “women’s work”. As women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers, what was traditionally considered “women’s work” became increasingly devalued. This is how, as a society, we came to view time in the kitchen as a kind of drudgery, as time wasted. Yet, if we think about it, preparing healthful meals in our own homes can be a meaningful way of caring for ourselves and our families. Often, however, we view time spent preparing food as a waste of time that could be spent being more “productive”. Nonetheless, people often spend thousands of dollars on kitchen upgrades – only to spend very little time preparing wholesome meals.

It may seem like it would be obvious, but a new study has confirmed that people who spend more time preparing and cooking meals are more likely to have healthier diets. People who spent the least time on food preparation also spent the most money on eating away from home, and were more likely to eat at fast food restaurants, according to the authors.

The study was led by Pablo Monsivais, from the Center for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge in England. His team used survey information from 1,319 participants in the Seattle Obesity Study, conducted from 2008 to 2009. All of the participants were the main food providers in their households. They were asked about cooking habits, eating habits, food spending and restaurant use. Participants were asked how much time they spent on food preparation each day: less than an hour, one to two hours, or more than two hours.

Participants who spent the most time in the kitchen tended to be white, younger married women. They also had larger families and more household income, but were less likely to be employed, the authors reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. People who spent the most time cooking meals consumed at least eight servings of fruit and 13 servings of vegetables per week, the authors found. Those who spent the least amount of time preparing meals ate on average six servings of fruit and just under 11 servings of vegetables per week. When it came to weekly food spending, those who spent the most time cooking spent about $7 less for each family member each week. The study team also found that people who spent less than an hour per day cooking were almost twice as likely to visit fast food outlets every week compared to those who spent the most time cooking.

Monsivais said that healthy eating might have an associated time “cost” that people need to recognize: “We should be aware up front that if we have intentions of having a healthier diet we just might have to spend more time in the kitchen to make that possible.”

The researchers say their results don’t prove that time spent on food preparation translates to healthier diets. It’s possible that people who eat healthier just like to spend more time preparing food. But if time is a critical ingredient in a healthier diet, they write, public programs to encourage better eating need to take that into account to make the “true costs of healthier diets more realistic.”

Lori Rosenthal, a dietician at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, said that the study highlights the need for more nutrition education and teaching on how to prepare meals quickly and more cost effectively: “When you think about families where both parents are working, it’s easy to grab something and bring it home to your family. It’s a lot faster than preparing something,” said Rosenthal, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “So that’s why it’s really important to teach people techniques that can cut the time down so they will be cooking and preparing meals instead of buying everything, and also how to choose healthier options when they do buy things out of the home,” Rosenthal added. Rosenthal said that planning is the key to success for eating healthy, saving money and saving time: “Sit down and figure out what you are going to eat for the week – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks – and make a grocery list so you can buy the things you need in advance. Right after you go grocery shopping clean the vegetables, cut them up, separate things into Ziploc bags – have it set up for yourself, so it’s faster,” she said. Another time saver Rosenthal recommends is pre-preparing meals or cooking foods in larger batches and freezing them in portions. “You basically have healthy homemade frozen dinners,” she said. Rosenthal also suggests using slow cookers and making one-pot meals to save on clean-up time.

Thomas Moore, psychotherapist, former Catholic monk, and author of Care of the Soul, writes in an article titled Food for the Soul: “Cooking is a good soul art. It offers immediate contact with the food we eat. It’s contemplative, as well, when you cut and slice vegetables or watch a pot simmer or keep an eye on the oven. Cooking can teach you how to live: observantly, patiently, creatively, artistically and lovingly. It can be communal and familial. Everyone can have a part”. Moore continues: “Pleasure is natural to food and should always be present…When we turn food into a mere object, we tend to abuse it and abuse ourselves with it. We substitute quantity for quality. We don’t have a sensual experience of food, and therefore we eat too much. Our imagination is ‘out to lunch’, and so we stuff our bodies. We don’t value the role of food in our friendships and families, and therefore we tolerate the fast, unconscious, ungraceful ingestion of solids and liquids that today passes for dining…Ritual around food need not be too formal or fancy. You can set a beautiful table, simple or complex, depending on the occasion. Care taken to surround food with beauty invites a deeper experience. You can eat certain food on the same day every year to celebrate or just remember. You can bless your food or light a candle. Simple, graceful acts can deepen an ordinary meal into a feast or communion…food without ceremony goes into the belly, bypassing the heart, the imagination and the spirit. It is empty, not just of physical nutrient, but of soul nutrients as well”.

According to a recent Nielsen survey on American eating habits, most Americans prefer snacks to real food. According to the poll, Americans would much rather drop by a retailer and grab a bite of cheerios than go to the grocery store and buy real food. We are becoming a nation of snackers. Snack sales rose by 2% to $374 billion last year, while sales of grocery store products remained relatively unchanged. The reasons people gave for snacking all the time were: enjoyment of eating; snacks satisfied hunger in between meals; people are working more (on average, full time workers put in 47 hours per week); millions of people are juggling multiple jobs; snacks are widely available, and involve no preparation or cooking; and finding time to put together a proper meal at home is becoming increasingly difficult.

How do you view time spent on food preparation? How much time, on average, do you spend? Share your thoughts and experience with me and with other readers by commenting on this post.

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With your continued health in mind,

Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.

Director, The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management

Creator, The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management

The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh™ is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.

Sources: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online September 18, 2014