When parents buy prepackaged, processed meals — known to have more calories, sodium, sugar, and fat than natural foods — it’s more complicated than saying “I don’t have time to cook.” In fact, many of them really like those ready meals.

This is the discovery of a recent study from researchers out of University of Minnesota and Duke University, showing that processed foods remain a popular choice among consumers not just out of convenience or the lack of time, energy, and skills devoted for preparing family meals.

More Than Just Lack Of Time

The majority of survey participants, or 57 percent, cite time savings as their reason for buying frozen dinners. However, nearly half or 49 percent reported that they buy ready meals because their families truly liked the meals.

One-third of respondents preferred processed foods because their kids could help prepare the food, while more than a quarter or 27 percent cited cost savings.

“[I]t is not entirely surprising that most parents buy frozen dinners to save time on preparation,” said lead author Dr. Melissa Horning in a statement.

The research echoes previous findings that link a preference for processed meals to more working hours for parents. But this goes beyond saving time and effort — parents actually lack “cooking self-efficacy” and ability to plan meals.

The team warned about the consequences of choosing more processed meals, including less intake of fruit and vegetables and less overall nutritive value.

The findings were discussed in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The Focus On Children’s Diets

Previous studies have emphasized the importance of paying attention to what children eat. A study commissioned by the Infant and Toddler Forum last year, for instance, found that one in 10 parents give their kids adult-sized food portions, which is seen to fuel the obesity crisis in the age group.

The survey of 1,000 parents also discovered that 79 percent of children ages 1 to 4 are often being fed more than the recommended food portions for their age. Many of the respondents, too, do not realize that ready-to-eat meals come in adult-sized portions that could sabotage kids’ ideal weight and health.

“Portion size is critical. It's one of the main ways in which, as parents, we can inadvertently override children's self-regulation systems," said ITF member Gill Harris.

TV or Internet ads promoting junk food and processed treats, too, are seen to negatively impact children’s eating habits. A meta-analysis in the UK early last year revealed that ads substantially increase consumption of junk food among children, with television commercials and online ads having equally powerful effects.

Increased in food consumption due to these ads are small but cumulative, the researchers noted, and raise the critical role of food marketing in children’s diets.

Separate findings this year highlight the therapeutic effects of diet on children’s well-being. A novel study revealed that inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can be treated through diet therapy, such as when it put patients on a special carbohydrate diet (SCD) for 12 weeks.

SCD is a balanced diet program that eliminates processed foods, sugar, dairy, and grains, encouraging a nutritious intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meat.

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