Study: Low-Income Families Cook Dinner at Home Five Nights a Week, Aspire to Eat Healthy

Cost is the Most Common Barrier to Healthy Meals; Meal Planning & Food Budgeting Can Help

Low-income American families are cooking dinner at home most nights but are struggling to make healthy meals, according to a new study released today from Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters with support from the ConAgra Foods Foundation. The research suggests that although 85 percent of the families surveyed say that healthy eating is important, only about half are managing to eat healthy meals at home most days. 


With one in three Americans living in or near poverty, and record participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), many low-income Americans feel challenged to eat healthy meals at home.  It's Dinnertime: A Report on Low-Income Families' Efforts to Plan, Shop for, and Cook Healthy Meals, launched in collaboration with chef, cookbook author and television host Sara Moulton, highlights low-income families' desires and behaviors around healthy foods. 


The study found that cost is the most commonly cited barrier to making healthy meals; a majority of families are satisfied with the quality and variety of available healthy grocery items. Low-income families that regularly plan meals and budget for food are able to make healthy meals more often. 


"It's clear that even families with limited resources are making healthy eating a priority, but there's a gap between their healthy aspirations and their ability to put nourishing meals on the table most days," said Janet McLaughlin, director of Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters. "Simple strategies, like writing a grocery list or comparing unit prices at the store, can help narrow that gap."


"A family dinner doesn't have to break the bank, and—most importantly—it can still be delicious," said Sara Moulton, who pointed to healthier, more affordable versions of family favorites like tacos and lasagna. Moulton, an advocate to end child hunger in America, is the host of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television, author of Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners and the new iPhone app Sara's Kitchen, and Food Editor for ABC-TV's Good Morning America.


Share Our Strength offers cooking, shopping and nutrition education to families at risk of hunger across the country through Cooking Matters. The program is part of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, which works to increase access to public food and nutrition programs and educate families on how to get more from their food resources.  The average graduate from Share Our Strength's six-week Cooking Matters for Adults course plans meals ahead of time 55 percent more often, shops with a grocery list 50 percent more often and runs out of food 20 percent less often.


"Our philanthropic strategy involves investing in proven nonprofit organizations with innovative approaches to fighting child hunger, like educating families on how to get the most nutritional value from their food budgets," said Kori Reed, Vice President, Cause and Foundation for ConAgra Foods. "One of the ways we accomplish this is by funding research, such as this study, to better understand the challenges low-income families face and, in turn, better invest in programs that are poised to help communities overcome hunger and food insecurity."


Key findings from the research include the following:


* Low-income families are cooking at home. Eight in 10 families eat dinner at home at least five times a week.  As income decreases, the frequency of eating dinner made at home increases.


* Eating healthy meals is considered important and realistic by low-income families. Eighty-five percent of the families surveyed said that eating healthy meals is important to them, and two-thirds of families are interested in learning about cooking healthy meals.


* Low-income families struggle to put healthy meals on the table. Forty percent of families who say eating healthy meals is important are not providing healthy meals most days. While families are largely satisfied with the variety (61 percent) and quality (64 percent) of healthy grocery items available to them, only 30 percent are satisfied with price. Time is a barrier for some families, especially those where the food decision maker works full time.


* Practical information and simple strategies can help. Low-income families that regularly plan meals, write grocery lists and budget for food make healthy meals from scratch more often (more than five times a week) than those who don't.  A better understanding of the health benefits of frozen and canned fruits and vegetables could also put more healthy options in reach for low-income families: While 81 percent of low-income parents rated fresh produce as extremely healthy, that rating drops down to 32 percent when it comes to frozen fruits and vegetables and 12 percent with canned fruits and vegetables.


* Families are eager for tips and tools. Fifty percent of families are extremely interested in learning more about cooking healthy meals, and two out of three families are interested and four in 10 are extremely interested in learning how to better budget for meals. 


Working under the premise that it takes more than food to fight hunger, the ConAgra Foods Foundation, a national sponsor of Cooking Matters, funded It's Dinnertime as part of its ongoing strategy to find sustainable solutions to help surround kids with the nourishment they need to flourish. The research study was designed and conducted by APCO Insight, the opinion research division of APCO Worldwide. The complete study is available at