In 2014 America reached a tipping point in how we consume food. We are now spending more money at restaurants and fast food establishments than on food meant to be prepared at home. Eight in 10 Americans report eating at fast-food restaurants at least monthly, with almost half saying they eat it on a weekly basis. Only 4% of consumers say they never consume the stuff.
Breakfast cereals are even becoming a thing of a past, with around 40% of millennials shying away them. "Because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don't clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned."
When it comes to food convenience is now king, and whether you like it or not, it is a trend that is here to stay.
This demand for convenience is staring the public health nutrition community (myself included) right in the eyes. Yet, when it comes to solutions around improving food intake, very few interventions take this into consideration.
Health communication expert, Timothy Edgar, has demonstrated that place strategy (read convenience) in social marketing (not social media) has been an underutilized approach in the field of public health. If we want people to change behavior, we need to make it as easy as possible. Like Uber and Keurig easy. "Convenience, Convenience, Convenience."
The burden of high prices is usually cited as a reason for not eating healthy; however, the USDA has demonstrated that on average people can meet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans fruit and veggie recommendations for about $2.10 to $2.60 per day. This translates into an average cost of approximately 47 to 57 cents per cup-equivalent. Most people can get their full daily serving of fruits and veggies for much less than a small iced coffee.
Knowledge is also a common cited issue for unhealthy eating patterns, but research has shown that 86% of consumers already know they should be eating around 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
All to often nutrition programs ignore trends of what most families want, or desire to spend their time doing. For instance, cooking at home can actually cost you more money if you factor in the cost of time. Researchers at Virginia Tech demonstrated that when you include the "full price" of a food, market price and cost of the time to prepare, processed foods are actually more affordable in pretty much every instance.
They also highlighted that unprocessed foods were especially more expensive for home prepared recipes for the more time-intensive food groups, such as grains and vegetables. Two food groups we are nowhere near meeting recommendations for.
As food policy researcher Corinna Hawkes has stated, "I think there is too much of our personal preferences that go into the (nutrition) solutions that we offer ... people advocate for foods they (personally) like to eat. We need to work much harder to put ourselves in other people's shoes," when it comes to designing nutrition interventions.
Just as Dr. Hawkes has said, as we begin to design policies and concepts around healthy eating we need to, "extend beyond making healthy choices the easy choices to making healthy choices the preferred choices," too. One avenue to do so is to make healthy eating as easy as the same foods making us sick.
Communities who are the hardest hit when it comes to diet related diseases are telling us that one of the biggest reasons they don't eat healthy is due to time constraints. 150 mothers who participated in a North Carolina State University study also stated that, "time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials."
Data has already shown that consumers will increase consumption when nutritious foods are made more convenient. Roberto A. Freedman at The Washington Post has highlighted how convenience has improved both carrot and apple consumption.
A decade after baby carrots were introduced into the market, consumption doubled and currently accounts for 70% of all carrot sales. Already sliced apples have contributed to a 13% increase in consumption since they have been more widely utilized. Pre-sliced apples are especially making an impact in the school food setting with helping to increase consumption by 60% compared to when unsliced apples are served.
Public health organizations can begin to partner with food companies, restaurants, and commercial kitchens to create these healthy already prepared meals. And to clarify, when I say healthy foods, I mean items such as yogurt, whole grains, nuts, fish, veggies, beans, lentils, eggs, poultry, and dairy (the items in blue on the diagram). Some of these items are convenient already, but they pale in comparison to meeting the convenience needs of a family like delivery pizza, or burger and fries through the drive thru.
The Daily Table in Dorchester is implementing a great example of convenience nutrition by providing shoppers frozen meals that offer a good protein source, veggies, and whole grains for less than $2. They also wisely do not market the products as healthy and simply draw customers in with convenience and affordability.
Again, it's not to say that we should not promote cooking as a tool to improve dietary intake, or educate people on how to do so. Nothing will ever replace the feeling of eating a home cooked meal prepared by someone that cares for you.
We should though become more comfortable of telling people it's OK if you don't want to cook. The lack of desire or time to do so should not be a life-long sentence for unhealthy eating.