HEALTHY CHOICES with Liza Baker: Why cook from scratch and eat family meals at home?

 

As a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, a part-time nonprofit consultant, a freelance writer, cookbook author, and underpaid COO of a family of 4 humans, 1 furbaby, and the occasional marine biology experiment, I’ve learned that meal planning is definitely key to survival if I want to put made-from-scratch meals on the table on a regular basis!

Why do I bother with all that cooking when there are so many options out there, from fast food to takeout of just about any national cuisine, from casual dining to high-end gourmet restaurants?

Since it’s October—the month of Halloween—let’s look at some scary statistics to answer that.

Some Scary Statistics

Why don’t we cook from scratch and eat at home on a regular basis?

  • Food is everywhere—and a lot of it’s cheap. While it used to be found only as groceries and markets, now gas stations, convenience stores, hardware stores, and even libraries and book stores have food available.
  • In 1900, 2% of meals were eaten outside the home; in 2010, that increased to 50%.
  • Most family meals happen about 3 times a week, last less than 20 minutes, and are spent watching television or texting.
  • Often, each family member eats a different microwaved “food,” or as nutrition professor Marion Nestle says, a UFO, an unidentifiable food-like object.
  • In 2010, more meals were eaten in the minivan than the kitchen, and 1 in 5 breakfasts came from McDonald’s. If you doubt that, consider that when we lived in Southern California and walked our kids to school, it was not unusual to see my children’s classmates coming to school with breakfast in a fast food bag. And at lunchtime, many parents returned bearing more fast food.

What are the benefits of eating family meals?

Eating family meals can do a lot for our kids including:

  • Better academic and job performance, higher self-esteem, and a greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse: kids who eat family meals regularly are 42% less likely to drink, 50% less likely to smoke, and 66% less like to smoke marijuana.
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy and depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders and lower rates of obesity

In summary, children who have regular meals with their parents do better in every way, from better health to better grades to healthier relationships to staying out of trouble.

I’m guessing the practice is equally beneficial to the adults in the family as well.

How about cooking those meals at home?

Most of us have a favorite cooking show. In Cooked, Michael Pollan writes that when we do cook, the average American spends 27 minutes making dinner, far less time than it takes to watch an episode of Iron Chef!

Meaning that America has become a nation of people who love to watch cooking as a spectator sport but don’t engage in it regularly themselves.

According to Sophie Egan in Devoured, March 2015 was a watershed moment in the eating lives of Americans: for the first time since the government began tracking our spending habits around food (1970), we spent more money on food prepared outside the home (restaurants, takeout, etc.) than on groceries that we cooked at home. (It will be interesting to see whether and how meal kits like Blue Apron and Green Chef change that statistic.)

Why cook from scratch at home?

From scratch generally means using only whole or minimally processed ingredients—no mixes, spice blends, prepared salad dressings, pre-marinated cuts of meat, etc.

In addition to Egan’s fact above, consider:

  • Food prepared away from home—whether we’re talking complete meals or processed/prepared ingredients—is higher in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, and lower in dietary fiber than food prepared from scratch.
  • Americans increased their away-from-home share of calories from 18% to 32% in the last three decades, and much of that away-from-home food comes from highly processed ingredients.

And finally: calorie intake rose over the last three decades from 1,875 calories per person per day to 2,002 calories per day. That’s 127 calories extra per day, a little more than 1 snack pack.

Meaning that all else remaining the same (physical activity, sleep, stress levels, etc.), adding 127 calories to what we consume now would help us about 1 pound per month if we consider that 1 pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories. That’s 12 pounds per year, 120 pounds per decade…. You get my drift.

What’s the bottom line?

Let’s take a look at some data from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization among others:

  • More than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults have obesity and another one-third is overweight.
  • Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death, and those non-communicable diseases account for 71% of all deaths globally.
  • In 2008, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in America was $147 billion U.S. dollars.
  • The annual medical costs for people who have obesity are approximately $1,500 higher per person than those of normal weight.
  • For any HR people out there—the annual costs of obesity-related absenteeism range between $79 and $132 per obese individual, so if you have 1,000 obese employees, your obesity-related productivity costs could be between $8,000–$132,000 per year. And that doesn’t include “presenteeism”—lost productivity due to fatigue, brain fog, lack of focus, even though they are at work! Makes you rethink that vending machine….
  • Did you know that on average, 80% of our non-communicable diseases are lifestyle-related? That means that we can improve 85% of what ails us through our diet and lifestyle choices.

I think we can agree that if cooking from scratch and eating family meals are diet and lifestyle choices that prevent non-communicable disease, we may want to choose them more often than not, so…

What keeps us from cooking from scratch and eating at home?

When I take this poll in my webinars and workshops, the number one answer, ahead of skills and money, is time. When my clients tell me, “I don’t have the time,” I (very annoyingly, I know) tell them that what I hear is “I don’t prioritize.” And I do it because I’ve been there. But in addition to being a health coach, I’m a professionally trained chef, so I put my knowledge and experience to work to come up with a way to make meal planning and cooking from scratch on a regular basis within the realm of the possible.

You’re probably wondering, what’s the secret sauce? How can I take at least a step in that direction? I hate when someone gives a lot of gloom and doom statistics but doesn’t offer a solution—so I’m not going to do that to you!

Tune in for the November column, when I will not only share my weekly meal planning system with you but give you a plan for a (relatively) healthy and super delicious Thanksgiving dinner that will be practically stress-free because you’ll use all your new meal planning strategies to make it!

Resources cited:
Centers for Disease Control
Marion Nestle
Mark Hyman, MD
Michael Pollan
National Center for Biotechnology Information
Sophie Egan
The Family Dinner Project
USDA Economic Research Service
World Health Organization

Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza coaches them in identifying and interrupting the patterns that contribute to overwhelm and in establishing simple, sustainable new habits that will help them not just survive but thrive in what—contrary to popular belief—can be the happiest, healthiest decades of our lives. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at https://simply-healthcoaching.com and join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40, at https://simply-healthcoaching.com/membership.

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