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posted: 7/13/2011 9:36 AM

Cooking a thing of the past as families get busier

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  • Busy parents are finding it harder to get in the kitchen to cook family meals.

    Busy parents are finding it harder to get in the kitchen to cook family meals.


If someone doesn't know how to cook, people might say, "He/she doesn't know how to boil water."

The expression is meant as a joke, but Gilberts-based nutritional therapist Sylvia Pomazak actually worked with a parent who did not know how to boil water, plus dozens of others with no clue how to prepare a healthy family meal.

"They know how to use a microwave, but they don't know how to make a scrambled egg. That's scary," she said.

This generation of parents cook far less than the generation before them did -- either because they're too busy, lazy or don't know how -- and it is leading to serious problems with their family's nutrition and health, suburban dietitians say.

According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 35 percent of Illinois children between the ages of 12 and 17 did not eat a family meal together most days of the week.

By cooking less -- and eating out more -- families are consuming more calories and unhealthy additives, which can lead to everything from brittle hair to debilitating obesity. Some recent health studies link poor nutrition to asthma. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says the absence of family meals can lead to everything from poor grades to emotional problems.

Why aren't parents cooking? The main reason is a societal change. Many of today's families now have both parents working and kids booked with activities. A family meal used to be a priority. Now, time that would be spent planning and preparing a meal is used to finish work or shuttle kids. As a result, fast and easy food becomes an attractive option to parents.

"Society gets into that 'I need something quick, I need something easy and I need something inexpensive' mindset, and they see that $1 value menu. Every once in a while it's perfectly fine, but when it becomes part of your daily lifestyle, that's a problem," said Pomazak, with Optimal Nutrition Health and Wellness, Inc.

Most parents know how to cook, but because they're tired and often pressed for time, they're buying more prepackaged, processed food in hopes that it will be quicker and easier than using fresh ingredients. While not all of it is bad, a lot of it is, nutritionists say.

"Microwaving chicken nuggets or boiling a hot dog is not the way to do it," says Amanda Roop, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist with Portrait Health Center for the Healing Arts in Buffalo Grove.

A common myth among today's parents is that cooking healthy takes a long time. However, Roop said just getting a rotisserie chicken to go at the grocery store, microwaving a baked potato and steaming a vegetable takes as much time as waiting for a carryout order.

Another reason why parents are cooking less is because they don't know how. While TV cooking shows and celebrity cookbooks may be all the rage, they don't educate people about healthy eating.

"There are literally clients who come in, and I talk about carbohydrates, and they don't know what that means," Roop said.

Nutritional education is lacking in most schools and communities, experts say. To help educate people, first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign includes a "MyPlate" image, which uses a picture to show how to balance food choices.

Another problem with parents not cooking is that it leads to an ignorance of what goes into the food they eat, Roop said.

"And, if parents aren't cooking now, future generations of children aren't going to know how to cook," she said. "That means we're becoming more reliant on food companies and restaurants to provide us with nutritional meals."

Roop recommends making one simple change at a time. That might mean bringing home your McDonald's, putting it on a plate, and cooking up a portion of frozen broccoli to go with it. Or it might mean using the crock pot once a month. Or setting aside one day a month to cook healthy meals and freeze them in single-serving portions.

"If they're not cooking at all, there will be consequences," Roop said. "People need to understand what an important role diet plays in everything."

Pomazak adds that it's important to be mindful about what you're eating, and rather than adhere to a good food/bad food mentality, figure out a way to lead a healthier lifestyle.

"They need to ask, 'Am I willing to put in a little extra time now, to prevent paying extra money in health care costs down the road?'" she said.