Convenience food has been around since WWII, when foods were prepared for soldiers at war, to be easily consumed with minimal preparation on the battlefield. Simply heat and eat, or just eat directly from the container.
Since that time, the presence of convenience food in our culture has grown from canned fruit and frozen fish sticks to individually packaged snacks and candies, complete meals in a bag or box (just add meat), the everywhere fast food joint, and the school lunch menu.
Need a pizza? Just pull it out of the freezer. In between soccer games? Pull into the local fast food restaurant and order your meal to go. No time to make your child’s lunch? You can even purchase a mini lunch for kids in the grocery store. Better yet, you can even find stores stocked with these items– convenience stores!
The Inconvenience of Convenience Food
Can you really afford to feed your children a diet laden with convenience food? Foods which conveniently make the most of your time, but may be inconveniently undermining your child’s health?
Convenience food such as packaged foods, frozen foods, and fast food rise as mountainous obstacles to overcome along the path to healthy eating. Use of convenience foods have been associated with weight gain and unhealthy eating habits in children.
We see this particularly in children who are raised in “food deserts,” areas in which there is limited access to grocery stores and in which convenience stores are plenty. However, children who have ready access to grocery stores and healthy foods are also guilty of over-consuming convenience food.
Is convenience food bad?
No, not all. Is eating something out of a frozen box for breakfast, a prepared mini-lunch at noon, and a swing through the drive-through on the way home from work good for your child? Probably not.
To children, convenience food tastes good (heck, they taste good to adults too!). Convenience food tends to contain significant amounts of “flavor kicks”: salt, fat, and sugar. Fat and sugar = calories. Salt = savory, lip-smacking tastiness. And although there has been a recent effort by manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt added to convenience food– these efforts are quiet and too new to tell if they will have a positive impact on health.
How to limit convenience foods:
Just say no. Limit fast food excursions to 1-2 times/week or less.
Plan ahead for meals at home. Eating at home tends to be healthier, plus there are numerous benefits to eating together as a family, such as better academic scores, improved social adjustment, and less risk-taking behaviors. If you must visit the drive through, choose healthier options such as milk, fruit cups/bags, yogurt parfaits, salads, and grilled meats, for example.
If convenience items appear in your shopping cart each week, when shopping, compare the nutrient labels for similar items of different brands, and choose the item with less salt, fat, and calories per serving.
Add color to convenience! Fruit and veggies added to frozen meals and fast food options can increase the nutrition quality of your child’s meal.
Use the original convenience food: Fruit.
Use the ultimate convenient cooking gadget: The slow cooker or crockpot. There are many cookbooks devoted to crockpot recipes, which are tasty and healthy. Try one of my family favorites.
Cook ahead and freeze: Pancakes, waffles, casseroles, mashed potatoes, spaghetti sauce, meatballs, and more. Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers for another meal.
Don’t let convenience food inconvenience your child’s health!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: January 14, 2010
Updated on: May 8, 2019