Convenience food doesn't quite live up to its promise of speed when it's used in the making of family dinners, says a study on the eating habits of middle-class families in Los Angeles. Nor does it necessarily help with each family's long-term nutritional goals.

Adapting passages from their book Fast-Forward Family for The Atlantic, anthropology professors Elinor Ochs (UCLA) and Margaret Beck (University of Iowa) found that:

There was no significant difference in the total cooking time for dinners made primarily from convenience foods and those made primarily from fresh ingredients or a combination of fresh and some or limited convenience foods.

Ochs and Becks led a research team that followed 32 families in L.A. with double incomes from 2001 to 2004. One commonality among the families was the habit of stockpiling individually packaged foods for children. The availability of these snacks may mean immediate convenience, but it's also one likely cause for family members getting out of sync during mealtimes.

Beck's observation of family dinners reveal that when eaten at separate times or places during the weekday, the meals were comprised of 68 percent convenience foods or takeout. The inverse was true when families ate together during the weekday, with 76 percent of the meal made from mostly fresh ingredients.

For comparison, they included Ochs and her Italian colleagues' research on families of similar economic background living in Rome. Unlike participants in their L.A. study, “middle-class parents in Italy frequently direct children's attention to the pleasurable qualities of food.” They suggest one takeaway for parents: Don't underestimate the significance of nurturing taste values in addition to nutrition.

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