Woman preparing food with young daughter

Parents are more aware than ever before of the dangers of childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity prevalence among children and teens has almost tripled since 1980.

Signs of change are everywhere, from updates in school lunch programs to the First Lady's "Let's Move" initiative. One thing remains a big challenge for parents, however: finding the time to cook homemade meals. The economy has made it near impossible to survive on a single income, so both parents often have to work. Kids are often involved in multiple extra-curricular activities, which leaves families little time to prepare food. Many turn to the ease and convenience of takeout, but that's an unhealthy move for kids.

Study Shows Kids Eating More Takeout and Fast Food
Researchers from the University of North Carolina collected data on nearly 30,000 children ages two to 18. The data showed that between 1977 and 2006, calories eaten away from home increased from about 23 percent to nearly 34 percent, with calories from fast food adding up to more than those eaten at school.

Takeout and fast food includes prepared meals from supermarkets, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants. It's typically higher in sugar and calories and lower in nutrients than home-cooked food. Study author Jennifer Poti concluded that eating outside the home is fueling the "increased energy intake for kids" and contributing to weight gain.

Fast Food Changing, but Still Coming up Short
The CDC reports that childhood obesity is the result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories used to support growth, development, and physical activity. When eating takeout or fast food, children typically consume more calories, since restaurants promote large portion sizes and cook with more fat than most imagine. They also often drink more sugar-sweetened beverages that are full of empty calories.

Some fast food restaurants have made changes lately that seem to indicate a move toward healthier choices for children, such as the inclusion of low-fat milk (1%) and fruit in children's meals. A study by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, looked at more than 3,000 kids' meal combinations from 12 popular chain restaurants. According to the findings, only 12 of those meals met the nutritional guidelines for preschool-aged kids. Worse, it was often very difficult to get a healthy side item and drink.

Family Meals Are Key
Research shows that family meals not only help kids maintain a normal weight, but they also offer an opportunity to teach healthy eating skills for life. Obesity expert Sherry Rieder, Ph.D. suggests that children who learn about realistic food portions and healthy food options from a young age are more likely to carry these habits with them into adulthood. Many busy families, however, feel that preparing a meal every night is just too much. Here are some tips to help you eat healthy without spending too much time doing it:

  • When you do have time to cook (weekends and days off can be good opportunities), make extra and freeze it for fast-paced evenings.
  • If you can't eat at home every night, shoot for five nights a week. Try enforcing family rules like "fast food only once a week," or "home dinners on weekends, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays."
  • Keep your kitchen stocked with commonly used foods that can be ready in minutes, like frozen veggies, canned beans, tomato and pasta sauce, eggs, whole grain pasta, brown rice, roasted chicken (prepared without the skin), yogurt, tortillas, mixed greens, and low fat salad dressing.
  • Compile a folder of your favorite online recipes or buy recipe books with quick, easy meal ideas.
  • Draft a menu plan a week ahead and stock up on the ingredients you'll need in one shopping trip, so you don't have to shop during the week.
  • When you have time, try to do your food prepping--chopping, mixing, and pre-cooking--to help mealtime go faster during the week and save money.
  • If you haven't tried a crock-pot yet, get one! It's the quick and easy way to cook stews, roasts, and casseroles. Just start it in the morning and it's ready and waiting when you get home.
  • Consider "breakfast for dinner" now and then--an omelet, whole grain pancakes, or eggs, fruit, and veggies all work great and are quick and easy to make.
  • Designate one night as "leftover night." Raid the refrigerator and use your imagination.