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Too Busy To Cook?

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By guest blogger Ayala Laufer-Cahana, MD, physician (pediatrics and medical genetics), artist, serious vegetarian home cook, mother of three active school-age kids, and cofounder of Herbal Water Inc.

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Parents today are busier than ever, and lack of time is the reason many people give when asked why they don't cook more often.

But I don't believe it. My feeling is that although it's true that our lives may be fast and hectic, time scarcity isn't the main reason families aren't enjoying a home-cooked meal together.

There are plenty of time-consuming house chores we still perform diligently, either ourselves or through surrogates--we still do laundry, clean and tidy up the house, and shop. Most of us find time for all the things that we see as important, and also some time for watching TV. And I'm sure you know super-busy people who cook a decent meal every day (I'll let you in on their secret before this post is done). No, I think lack of time hardly explains this trend.

Why is cooking the chore we so often outsource?

I was intrigued by a new study in the medical journal Appetite that looked at 120 working mothers' perceived and factual time-pressure, to see whether time constraints affected the healthfulness of their evening meal preparation.

The researchers, led by Monica Beshara, recruited 120 moms of at least one school-aged child, who identified themselves as the primary meal preparers in the household. The mothers were asked how many hours they worked, and using a specialized questionnaire, also how time-pressured they felt.

Healthfulness of a weeks' worth of meals was assessed by comparing the meals mothers reported serving to the dietary guidelines.

The researchers hypothesized that time pressure would be the main obstacle to healthy meals, but they also assessed many other variables. Among the most important were the mother's self-report of how self-efficient and confident she was in her ability to make a healthy meal, and how much she valued convenience and time-saving strategies in food preparation.

To the researchers' surprise they found that time, or lack of it, had no direct impact on the meal quality. The busiest of moms were as likely to produce healthy meals as those with more time on their hands. The most important determinant of meal quality was the mother's confidence in her ability to make it happen--mothers who believed in their culinary skills, and had an expectation of a good result, produced healthy meals.

So here is, I think, our main culprit for the disappearing home-cooked meal: lack of culinary skills. Many parents today are second-generation non-cooks. They have very few kitchen skills to build upon, and cooking and food preparation is therefore alien and dreaded.

The double-edged sword of convenience

Many kids leave home without a clue of how to do laundry, or balance a checkbook. They learn fast enough, because they have to. Not so with cooking; many are proudly ignorant, believing they can live happily ever after without even the most basic food skills.

And the reason so many think they can get away with not cooking is very obvious. Prepared meals, fast-food and take-away have provided a cheap, palatable, highly advertised alternative. Cleverly, these foods are promoted to kids for taste and fun, and to moms for convenience. Who doesn't love convenience, ease, and saving time? Decades-long promotion has established in our collective mind that cooking takes too much time and skill. Convenience food was the solution to everything: The kids are happy to eat brightly packaged as-seen-on-TV food, and mom saves precious time.

Except this solution is now blamed, in large part, for our expanding waists and poor health. Because there is no substitute for simple, nutritious home-made meals, and most purchased foods add a lot of calories and unhealthy ingredients to our diets. The most convenient, time-efficient (and inexpensive) way to eat healthfully is to cook simple meals at home.

Time to go back to cooking

A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association calls for restoring a modernized form of home economics class in schools, with a curriculum that would teach kids how to prepare healthful meals and make better food choices. Many kids today, the authors say, aren't likely to receive such instruction at home, because the skills have been lost for more than a generation. I think it's an idea worth exploring. Many trends start with kids, with grown-ups following suit.

Here's the secret I'm sure all cooking moms and dads know: Cooking isn't hard, nor is it necessarily time consuming. It's quite rewarding, and when cooking at home, for family or friends, most people are so happy to be fed a home-cooked meal they are just thankful, and completely non-judgmental.

And here's another secret: You can recruit help. Kids are very happy to have important jobs, and very proud to be working in the kitchen.

If you're new to ways of the kitchen, buy good ingredients, cook them simply, and build on your successes. Like any other skill, practice and gradual learning will make it better and better.

No one is too busy to cook, and anyone can cook.

Read more from Dr. Ayala at HerbalWater.typepad.com.

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