Is Stress Messing with Healthy Meals at Your House?

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Moms with full-time jobs reported fewer 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. (AP Photo)

Any busy parent could have written the conclusion to a new Temple University study on crazy-busy families and the food choice we make. Yes, we hit the drive through on the way from after-school care to softball practice. Yes, we collapsed into a booth at the nearest pizza parlor on Friday night because we all needed a break. No, I never cooked the kale in the fridge – no time. We ate hoagies.

But that doesn’t mean the new report, titled “Parental employment and work-family stress: Associations with family food environments” published in the July issue of Social Science and Medicine, has nothing to tell us. “For both parents, the more stress they were feeling about work getting in the way of family, the more we saw unhealthful dietary habits by parents and fewer opportunities for healthful eating in the home,” said lead author, Katherine Bauer, an assistant professor of public health and researcher at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education.

The study looked at 3,709 parents of teens. Two out of three fathers and about half of the mothers worked full-time.

It’s a little hard not to feel guilty about the findings – or a little smug if you’re a parent who is at home by choice to take care of the kids:

  • Bauer and her team found that moms with full-time jobs reported fewer 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.
  • And 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.

Instead of feeling guilty or throwing up my hands and saying, "What do you expect me to do??? I work!" - I’m trying to look at this another way. It’s easy to promise I’ll cook the kale and roast the chicken next week on Monday, followed by fresh fish and brown rice on Tuesday – but maybe it makes more sense to acknowledge reality. If next week looks crazy, maybe it’s time for a little defensive food shopping. Presliced carrots and broccoli. A rotisserie chicken on the way home. A carton of strawberries and a bag of premixed salad greens I can get on the table in seconds flat. A loaf of whole-grain bread.

If stress and work are interfering with how we feed our families, let’s give ourselves a break by redefining healthy food instead of looking for ways to be June Cleaver in 10 minutes — while everyone’s screaming for dinner. It just might work.

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