Study Shows How Low-Income American Families Shop, Cook and Eat on a Budget (PART 1 of 2)

This is part one of a two-part blog from Dorothy Hernandez on the Share Our Strength study: “It’s Dinnertime: A Report on Low-Income Families’ Efforts to Plan, Shop for and Cook Healthy Meals.” Part two will appear next week.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to eat food prepared from scratch every night with my family, even though my mom worked a full-time job (sometimes two). We sat down together and ate together. And we ate everything that was on our plates. I attribute my attitude and perceptions of food to the early days of family dinnertime.

As coordinator of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters (a series of cooking-based nutrition classes for low-income families administered locally by Gleaners Community Food Bank), I’ve noticed that family dinnertime is almost an anomaly among our participants; many times I hear that there just isn’t time to sit down for dinner as a family.

A new Share Our Strength study funded by ConAgra Foods Foundation, “It’s Dinnertime: A Report on Low-Income Families’ Efforts to Plan, Shop for and Cook Healthy Meals,” reflects what I often see locally around shopping and eating patterns of families.

The study’s good news? Many low-income families are eating dinner at home together most nights of the week.

The bad news? Those meals oftentimes aren’t healthy enough.

Made-from-Scratch vs. Processed Food

According to the study, nearly 80 percent of families report eating at home five or more times a week, but only 53 percent say those meals are healthy; even fewer are making dinner from scratch.

While 76 percent of families say making dinner from scratch is important, only 46 percent are actually providing made-from-scratch dinners most days or every day. Meals for most families are easy, quick, filling, inexpensive, and often consist of boxed or processed foods.

Many said they used easy-to-prepare packaged foods to get dinner on the table. The study reported, “Time deficits mean parents are more likely to prepare easy to cook meals that can be unhealthy. Participants’ journals reveal that meals like hamburgers or hot dogs and frozen French fries, frozen pizza or ‘TV dinners,’ or spaghetti with jar sauce and frozen garlic bread are commonly eaten at home.” If you look at the food label for these processed products, it is usually high in sodium, sugar or fat—or maybe all of the above.

Not only was time a commonly cited barrier but also cost. Twenty-six percent of families skip healthy purchases because they feel they cannot afford them.

Parents often forego purchasing healthier items such as fruit and yogurt when money is especially tight. The items are sacrificed for basic foods like eggs, bread, milk and chicken. Interestingly, many of the “junk food” items, such as potato chips, frozen pizzas and desserts are also eliminated.

Here are some responses from the study:

“(Forgoing) fruit. The price has gotten higher so if I have to choose between a meal and fruit I will go with the meal.”

“Budget [is the challenge]. By the time you pay utilities and insurance, it doesn’t leave much left.”


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