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Americans prefer eating at home but still don't cook and eat healthier | Gustafson
The average American family eats at home on most days but is too rushed to make meals from scratch, according to a survey by Gallup-Healthways.
In terms of nutritional quality, overall eating habits in America are not improving and have in some ways become even worse.
Fewer Americans reported eating healthily by including fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis last year than the year before. Produce consumption is down especially among young adults, seniors, women and Hispanics, according to the Gallup poll.
"The trend has been toward eating more meals at home. It's just that we've been getting more and more of those meals we've been eating at restaurants to eat at home," said Harry Balzer, a vice president at The NPD Group, a consumer market research firm. "Frozen and pre-prepared foods have gotten more popular. (People) want to spend as little time as possible preparing meals and that's the driving force in the way we're eating right now," he added.
The results of the Gallup survey have been largely confirmed by another recent study, this one conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS), titled "How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?" While many of the ERS's findings came as no surprise – Americans like to eat quickly, tend to skip breakfast, take shorter lunch breaks, don't spend much time on preparing and enjoying elaborate meals, make spontaneous food shopping choices, etc. – what stands out is the growing dominance of what the study calls "secondary eating patterns," that is eating and drinking while simultaneously doing other things. Just focusing on your meals and enjoying them is becoming a thing of the past, especially among the younger generations, according to the report.
"On an average day (in 2006 to 2008 – the time period the survey took place), Americans age 15 and older spent about 2.5 hours daily eating or drinking. Slightly less than half of that time was spent eating and drinking as a primary or main activity, while the remaining time was spent eating and drinking while doing something else such as watching television, driving or working and waiting to eat or traveling to meal destinations," said the report.
The ERS study also found that Americans who adhered predominantly to "secondary eating patterns" had on average a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who kept mostly to "primary eating patterns" by setting time aside for their meals.
In his landmark book, "Mindless Eating," Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, pointed out that the average American makes well over 200 decisions about food every day, although when asked, most people initially believe they make only about 15 food-related decisions daily. Many of these decisions are made more or less unconsciously and even inexplicably. The reason is that we are often too distracted to pay attention to our eating. "If we knew why we ate the way we do, we could eat a little less, eat a little healthier, and enjoy it a lot more," said Dr. Wansink.
Needless to say that this would not be an easy exercise. In a world where we all are constantly surrounded by a thousand things competing for our attention, it is hard to shut everything down and focus only on what we eat, when we eat, where we eat, how much we eat and how fast we eat. Yet, these are the quintessential elements of healthful eating habits.
Change your actions
As a dietitian and health counselor I'm often asked by my clients what changes they should make in their way of eating. There are many possibilities, of course, but much comes down to paying closer attention to your actions.
For instance, you can start by making grocery shopping lists and sticking to them once you're at the store. Don't buy food items spontaneously. For this reason, you should not go food shopping when you're hungry.
Lay out a meal plan for a few days or an entire week if you have enough storage space. Prepare your meals as much as possible from scratch using fresh ingredients and lean cooking techniques. If you don't have enough time to cook every day, prepare what you can in advance over the weekend or whenever you have the time.
Eat only in your dining room or whichever part of your home is set up for eating. Before you sit down, make sure to switch off your television, cellphone, computer, everything that can interfere with the enjoyment of your meal.
If possible, try to keep conversations light. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be a pleasurable experience. If the atmosphere around the dinner table is tense and stressful, it will affect everyone's nutritional benefits as well.
Use food to celebrate. Although Thanksgiving is only once a year, there are plenty more opportunities to be grateful throughout the year. Having good food available itself is a cause for gratitude, being able to share it with others even more so.
There is little chance that we Americans will ever become quite like the French, the Greeks or the Italians, sitting down for hours on end over multi-course meals and wine in midday. And there is no reason why we should adopt other people's lifestyles. But we should make ours as healthful as we can. And there we have plenty of room for improvement.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.