Making own meals may not mean better diet quality

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young adults who have a hand in making their own meals may not eat much better than those who leave dinner to someone else, a new study suggests.

A woman eats her lunch at an outdoor cafe in Sydney September 6, 2005. REUTERS/Will Burgess

In a study of 2,800 Australians between the ages of 26 and 36, researchers found little evidence that those who typically helped prepare the main meal on a workday had more healthful diets than those who left the cooking to someone else in the household.

In general, women who said they shared the task of meal preparation tended to get more vegetables in their overall diet than women who avoided kitchen duty -- but the difference amounted to less than one extra serving.

Similarly, men who had sole responsibility for meal preparation tended to eat more lean meat and meat “alternatives” than their less culinary-minded peers. But again, the average difference was minor.

The findings, reported in the Journal of American Dietetic Association, seem to run counter to the theory that people who have a hand in making their own meals generally eat better. While few studies have examined this idea, a couple have found an association between involvement in meal prep and better diet quality, in both teenagers and young adults.

But while these latest findings did not show any strong relationship, they do not mean that people are better off leaving the cooking to someone else -- particularly if that someone is the local take-out place.

Instead, the study underscores the point that “just being involved in meal preparation is not enough,” according to lead researcher Kylie J. Smith, a doctoral candidate at the Menzies Research Institute in Hobart, Australia.

“You also have to make the right decisions and include healthy foods in the meals,” she told Reuters Health in an email.

Smith also pointed out some of the limitations of the study. The researchers only asked participants whether they helped make the main workday meal at home; other meals eaten throughout the day have a big impact on overall dietary quality as well. They also gave participants no definition of “meal preparation” -- which to some, Smith noted, could have meant heating a frozen meal.

The bottom line, she said, is that everyone needs to be aware of the ingredients that can make up a healthy meal: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, unsaturated fats like olive oil, and moderate amounts of lean meat and poultry.

The findings are based on a national sample of 2,814 men and women ages 26 to 36. Two-thirds of the women said they had sole responsibility for making the main meal at home on workdays; 29 percent of men said the same.

Another 23 percent of women said they helped with meal prep, as did 27 percent of men.

Women who shared kitchen duty reported eating just under two servings of vegetables per day, on average; that compared with 1.6 servings among women who left the job to someone else. This difference was significant in statistical terms, but small in terms of real-life diet quality.

There were no clear dietary-quality differences between women who managed mealtime themselves and those who left it to someone else.

Among men, the only difference was that those who made their own meals ate somewhat more lean meat and meat alternatives. But the advantage, on average, amounted to a fraction of a serving.

There was no evidence that men and women who made their own meals ate less take-out.

Limiting take-out is a wise move, however. Smith noted that take-out food is often high in fat, sugar and salt. What’s more, she said, people can make their own healthier versions of those foods -- such as pizza with a whole-grain crust topped with plenty of vegetables and low-fat cheese.

Since there has not been much research into involvement in meal preparation and diet quality, it is not clear how widely relevant these findings might be, according to Smith. But she said the results might at least be applicable to young, white adults in other developed countries.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2010