The Working Parent Dilemma: Less Time for Healthy Meals?

Have kids—and a job? Here’s how to make sure your time is well spent

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In late August, an unfriendly headline popped up, and pointed an accusing finger straight at moms with careers: "Working Moms Spend Less Time Daily on Kids' Diet and Exercise," it read. The source of the story was a news release from Cornell University, outlining the findings of a study that will be published in December in the journal Economics and Human Biology. The researchers found that working moms spend about three and a half fewer hours per day on items such as grocery shopping, cooking, and playing with their children, compared to stay-at-home moms. In the interest of saving time, working moms were also more likely to grab prepared foods from grocery stores or restaurants.

Melinda Johnson
Melinda Johnson
While these findings may seem like a no-brainer, the implied impact of the study, as reported by multiple media outlets, is that children of working moms are getting less exercise and less nutritious food. (The study did not actually measure this, however. It simply measured time spent on related activities.)The researchers also examined fathers, and found that working dads spend about 13 minutes a day tending to their kids' diet and exercise, compared to stay-at-home dads, who clock about 41 minutes.

So, what's a working parent to do? Take a deep breath and realize that quantity does not equal quality. This is not a competition between working parents and stay-at-home parents; all parents, regardless of how much time they have, can take a few simple steps toward improving the lives and health of their children. Here are five: 

1. Have family meals. Busy parents who invest time in this one activity will get the biggest bang for their buck in terms of time well spent. The research on family meals goes way beyond nutrition: Studies have shown that kids who eat more family meals tend to have higher self-esteem, engage in fewer risky behaviors, and earn higher grades. Any meal can be made into a family meal—even one thrown together from a grocery store rotisserie chicken and bagged salad that you grabbed on the way home.

2. Plan ahead. Spending less time at the grocery store doesn't mean you're doing a bad job as a parent—it may simply mean that you're planning ahead. Taking time to plan out the week's meals can shave a considerable time off of the need to "hunt" in the grocery store. Planning also guards against the "what's for dinner?" drive-through dash.

3. Insist on breakfast. Breakfast eaters tend to be leaner, and kids who eat breakfast typically perform better at school. Studies suggest that kids are more likely to skip their morning meal as they get older. Have easy items on hand to combat this, and make it a household rule—nobody leaves home without breakfast!

4. Eliminate mindless screen time. The biggest competitor against physical activity in our kids' lives is screen time: playing video games, watching TV, surfing the internet. Help your kids set a time limit to these activities, and plan how they want to use that screen time.Then encourage them to simply "unplug" when they have used up their time.

5. Embrace Fruits and veggies. If parents were to focus on only one thing to improve their family's overall diet, this could be it: eating more fruits and vegetables. Every meal and snack can be improved by adding in fruits and/or veggies—even a grab-and-go restaurant meal. Have frozen and canned produce on hand to help get through those times between grocery store visits.

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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.