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Will the Recession Make Us Healthy?


With money tight, a shopper ponders over what to buy at a New York supermarket. (Daniel Acker -- Bloomberg News)

Could tightening our financial belts help us tighten the ones around our waists? A new article Stomaching the recession: What the slumping economy will mean for the American diet in the new edition of Tufts Nutrition magazine addresses the question and concludes there's no simple answer.

The Great Depression, the usual reference point for our troubled economic times, doesn't provide good historical clues, the article reports. The way we ate 80 years ago was very different from today, with limited processed food, no television and most meals eaten at home. Today, half of American food dollars are spent outside the home, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Of the meals we eat at home, 36 percent are gobbled in front of the TV, according to research firm NPD.

Nor is it clear that a return to the kitchen would help Americans eat more healthfully. People will eat out less -- a survey conducted this spring found that 48 percent planned to cut back on dining out. But taste (read: fatty foods we love) and convenience (read: pre-packaged processed meals) will still drive most purchasing decisions. Nothing, not even the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, "will not make people want to cook," NPD's food analyst Harry Balzer told me. The most popular dinner item this year: the sandwich.

The Tufts article is interesting. But Balzer's take makes me wonder if we're asking the wrong questions. Of course the economy affects where and what we eat. But the ability to cook might have more impact. After all, if you know how to cook (and don't hate to do it), it's easy to make a fast, healthful meal without breaking the bank. My go-to bargain meal is pasta with canned tuna, tomatoes and a sprig of fresh rosemary. Parker Wilde, a professor at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, managed to make a meal of chicken curry, lentil dal, coconut black-eyed peas, white and brown rice plus and fruit salad for dessert for $1.40 per person.

What do you think? Is budget the determing factor in what you eat, or is it time and kitchen skills?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 14, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, budget  
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Comments

The lack of kitchen skills is the number one reason that people do not prepare their own meals, IMHO. If you have the most basic skills then you can quickly whip up a cheap meal. But I have to wonder, what is wrong with a sandwich for dinner? I recently made a wonderful smoked turkey with mango and curry mayo sandwich that was very satisfying, quick, and relatively cheap. Perfect for a hot summer day when you don't want to heat up the kitchen.

Posted by: nac1975 | July 14, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

The rate-limiting factor for me is time, so I plan ahead. I don't cook during the week as a rule, but I prep vegetables, and make my meals on the weekends. Then all I have to do is thaw and heat. On the rare days when I cook during the week, I have planned it so that I use the vegetables I prepped on Sunday. A side benefit is very low food bills.

Posted by: babsy1 | July 14, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

The answer to the question is to go to any Food Stamp office where you will see more obese people than in your office.
When the Food Stamp program came into being, it should have had mandatory nutrition classes. Is it too late??
I was behind a lady at the grocery store today who appeared to be using her EBT for the first time. She was buying cookies and cakes.
Why do Food Stamps pay for anything but the most nutritious food in the market? No empty calories. That and nutrition classes and we could prevent a whole lot of HBP and diabetes.

Posted by: edismae | July 14, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree that KNOWLEDGE is probably the most crucial factor. I've heard the excuse "I have 3 kids, I don't have time or money to cook for them" as Mom dumps 15 cartons of Hot Pockets and frozen Pizzas in her cart at the grocery store.

If Mom really stopped to think about what's in those foods, or what's in the McDonald's Cheeseburgers she picks up at the drive-thru, and had an inkling of what those substances will do to her children 10, 20, 30 years from now, she'd figure it out real quick. Maybe then she'd start using fresher ingredients, and maybe make the kids help her rather than planting their fat rears in front of the Wii or MySpace for hours on end.

My strategy to get started - I rarely shop in the center aisles of the grocery store, particularly the freezer section. I also rarely by anything that comes in a cardboard box (except for cane sugar, etc. of course).

Produce - Meats - Bakery - Deli.
It's more difficult to go wrong there then it is with pre-packaged foods that have partially hydrogenated oils, loads of processed sugars and high fructose corn syrups, and refined flour. I only pop into the aisles for the occasional jar of mayo or bottle of olive oil.

Posted by: JMGinPDX | July 14, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Noting that obesity seems to be correlated with poverty, I doubt the title of this article.

Posted by: Lamentations | July 14, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Weight is best related to quantity of food consumed and less to the sort of food consumed. Not that one can not come up with all fat diets that would ruin anyone, but to the average person a bit less will help more than changing what they like.

That is why most diets work. And why we can lose weight and still have what we consider a decent diet.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | July 14, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I love to cook, but I live alone and work until 6 pm at night. It is hard to come home and cook an entire meal after a long day.

Back in the 1930s, women rarely worked outside the home and shopped nearly every day before cooking a big meal for their working husbands. The men typically worked with their hands instead of with keyboards.

Americans are fatter for multiple reasons, not the least of which is lack of time and more sedentary, cerebral careers.

Posted by: AxelDC | July 14, 2009 9:10 PM | Report abuse

I find that the stress of being unemployed and of the fruitless search for employment causes me to buy from drive-thru restaurants more than ever before. I don't know when I'm going to be able to sit and have a meal, so I grab a McDonalds dollar hamburger (ground up and deliciously salted Chinese newspaper)and their latest wonderful invention, the one dollar McTea or McSweet Tea or something like that. Oh my god, what a powerful blast of teeth-aching sugar and icy cold tea. Delish! And that is not tongue in cheek. Now, the carbs in that drink have to be off the map. But it focuses you for at least a half an hour until the sugar wears off. Perfect for that job interview where someone perky and half your age is screening you.

Posted by: UsedToBeGOP | July 14, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

This is about the most ignorant title I have read in a long time. The author obviously lives in a bubble.

Posted by: ssol4569 | July 14, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

knowing your ingredients and knowing how to cook is key to eating well, healthy and on a budget. Knowing how to cook does not mean knowing how to make "fancy" stuff, but knowing basic techniques such as sauteing, braising, roasting and basic nutrition principles.

It's amazing to me that 50% of the food dollars are spend outside the home. When I sued to commute to work, I used to bring my luch in everyday. I figured that it saved about $3 to S4 a day - or $900 to $1,200/ year (and I would have have to earn more than that, thanks to taxes, to buy that amount of food). That was equivalent to one month of rent a month - not bad, just for knowing how to cook.

Sylvie
http://www.LaughingDuckgardens.com/ldblog.php/

Posted by: rowandk | July 14, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Poorly researched or just plain foolish. Take your pick.
Spending less will obviously result in people buying inferior food,
not in eating less or better.
And it won't hurt McDonald's either.

Posted by: stefankaitschick | July 15, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

It seems to be a hard-and-fast rule that any article like this will inevitably attract some comments about mothers feeding their kids crap because they're ignorant and lazy. ::snort::

I don't feed my kids crap all the time but, y'know, it's actually remarkably difficult to take care of two kids, clean the house, work part-time, pay bills, feed the kids...

So, occasionally my picky daughter eats frozen pizzas. And I don't feel even slightly guilty. So there.

Back on topic, I think the recession will make us less healthy, because people will work longer hours, giving less time to cook and exercise. I know that I certainly have less time for both.

Posted by: marag | July 15, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

The recession could make people healthier, but it probably won't. If people who had a decent diet just ate less, they would be healthy. If people with no knowledge of nutrition and even less ability to cook order off the dollar menu instead of the regular board, then they will not get healthier.

Posted by: margaret6 | July 15, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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