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Job Worries for Parents May Mean Poorer Nutrition for Kids

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 28 (HealthDay News) -- The more work-related stress parents experience, the more likely their children are to eat unhealthy meals, a new study shows.

"Who would have thought that a child's nutrition is affected by [parents] worrying about their jobs?" said Katherine Bauer, a researcher and assistant professor of public health at Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education. Bauer conducted the research while at the University of Minnesota.

The research is published in the current issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Bauer and her colleagues used data from a study of more than 3,700 parents of teens living in a Midwestern metropolitan area. Only 64 percent of fathers and 46 percent of mothers were employed full time.

Those mothers employed full time had fewer meals as a family, served more fast-food meals and encouraged their teens to eat healthy less often, the researchers found. They had lower fruit and vegetable intake and spent less time on food preparation than moms who worked part time or who were not employed.

The fathers' only difference by employment status was that full-time workers had fewer hours of food preparation than those who worked part time or were not employed.

Mothers spent more hours on food preparation than fathers, no matter their employment status, Bauer said.

Parents with high stress levels were more likely to have fast food for family meals, less likely to encourage their children to eat healthy and more likely to eat fewer servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Mothers with high stress levels served an average of four family meals a week, while those with low stress levels served 5.5 meals. Fathers with high stress levels had 4.1 family meals weekly; those with low stress levels had 5.7 family meals a week.

The findings were not surprising to Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston.

"Work stress can affect many areas of daily life, including meal times and quality," she said.

The solution? Bauer said children should learn to help prepare and cook meals. The entire family also can help with grocery shopping.

Lichtenstein agreed. "Teaching both parents and children how to take advantage of quick, easy, healthy and common food items we are fortunate to have in the marketplace can ease the load on any one member of the family," she said.

"No one wants to have to go out shopping after a tiring day, whether it be work, classes or after-school activities," Lichtenstein continued. "A little advance planning can ensure the components of a quick, healthy meal are on hand."

Her suggestions: Stock the freezer with frozen vegetables and lean sources of protein, such as chicken or shrimp. You can make a variety of healthy stir-fry dishes that can be assembled quickly. Also have on hand fresh salad greens and tofu.

"The other important part of the equation is ensuring that everyone in the household feels confident pitching in, whether it be tearing up lettuce leaves and setting the table for younger children or cutting and cooking for older household members," Lichtenstein said. "The key is to have the basic ingredients and the knowledge to use them for meal preparation."

More information

To learn more about good nutrition, see the dietary guidelines at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Katherine Bauer, Ph.D., researcher and assistant professor, public health, Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education, Philadelphia; Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Tufts University, Boston; June 22, 2012, Social Science & Medicine

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