Why Don’t Families Just Make Healthier Choices?

TABLES’s Volunteer & Nutrition Education Director, Abi Warmack, offers some answers to a question she receives a lot, “why don’t families just make healthier choices when it comes to eating?”

“A healthy meal choice is more complicated than choosing to eat more produce or fewer processed foods. One TABLE parent told us that because she has such a limited budget to buy groceries, she only buys foods she knows her children will eat.”

This is a question I get fairly often when talking to people about the work I do at TABLE. “Why don’t families receiving food assistance make healthier choices?” The people asking the question are well-intentioned and genuinely curious because they’ve read the headlines…

  • Childhood obesity is on the rise”
  • “Chronic illnesses, like diabetes & high blood pressure, are more prevalent in low-income communities”

In some ways, even TABLE’s mission prompts the question. We place a high value on providing “healthy” food to kids in Orange County. Healthy food makes our program stand out so it makes sense that people would ask me why it’s important to make sure the families we serve are getting healthy food. The implication is that TABLE provides a service these families are not otherwise receiving.

When answering this question, it’s important that I acknowledge there are many factors that go into the food choices of any family and that I can only touch on a few of these factors in this post. But at the end of the day, we recognized that all parents and guardians are doing the best they can to nourish their children and themselves with the resources and knowledge they have.

Time, Convenience and Managing Picky Eaters

Picture yourself as a parent of three elementary-aged children. When thinking about buying groceries for the week ahead, one of the first things you might think of is convenience. What grocery store can I go to between getting off of work and arriving home in time to greet my kids as they’re getting off the bus? If your time window is short, you may choose to pick up some staples at a convenience store in your neighborhood instead of making a further drive to a grocery store that offers a wider range of food options, and typically healthier options. If you rely on the bus system instead of a car, your choices are more limited based on the bus route, bus schedule and what you are able to carry with you instead of what you can load from shopping cart to trunk.

Time and convenience don’t just affect grocery shopping but also extend to meal preparation. In our example scenario, imagine you are able to shop at the grocery store and don’t have to worry about taking your groceries home on the bus. If you decide you want to have spaghetti with pasta sauce one night, do you buy the ingredients to make your own sauce using fresh vegetables, or do you choose to buy a can of sauce that has many of the same vegetables, but might be higher in sodium? When you get home, do you have the kitchen tools necessary to prepare a homemade sauce and cook pasta at the same time? How much time do you really have to make dinner and eat before it’s time to start your kids’ bedtime routine?

Finally, what if you make a delicious, homemade pasta sauce on top of whole wheat pasta, served with fresh green beans and your children refuse to eat it?A TABLE parent once told us that because she has such a limited budget to buy groceries, she only buys foods she knows her children will eat.Many people have recently felt the pressure of inflation at the grocery store. Couple that with the fact many young children are wary of unfamiliar foods. Child nutritionists say some kids need as many as 20 exposures to a new food before they will be willing to try it.For many families, the risk of a child not eating outweighs the potential benefit of exposure to a new food.

As you can see, a healthy meal choice is more complicated than choosing to eat more produce or fewer processed foods. At TABLE, our goal is to reduce some of the barriers to feeding kids a variety of foods. By providing nutrition education and consistent food deliveries with a range of fresh produce and nonperishables, right to families’ doorsteps, we hope to see a future where all kids get the nourishment they need to thrive and all families can experience the joy of eating together.

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