The best culinary paths to better health are not always paved with cash, as cooking at home can provide the most bang for the buck nutritionally as well as financially, a new study suggests.
"Traditionally, better socioeconomic status — more money — means healthier people," said Arpita Tiwari, a health systems researcher at Oregon State University.
"This research goes against that; it shows a resilience to that trend. It's not spending more but how you spend that's important. What you eat is important."
In a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Tiwari confirms what many mothers and grandmothers have said for decades: that habitually eating dinner at home means a better diet and lower food expenditures compared with regularly dining out.
The research involved more than 400 adults in the areas around Seattle, in the northwest area of Washington state, who were surveyed regarding a week's worth of cooking and eating behaviors.
Participants provided various types of socio demographic information, and their weekly food intake was graded using the Healthy Eating Index, which ranges from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating better diet quality.
An index score over 81 indicates a "good" diet; 51 to 80 means "needs improvement"; and 50 or less is "poor".
Among findings by the researchers: households that cooked at home three times per week showed an average score of about 67 on the Healthy Eating Index; cooking at home six times per week resulted in an average score of around 74.
The findings also suggested that regularly eating home-cooked dinners, associated with diets lower in calories, sugar and fat, meant meeting more of the guidelines for a healthy diet as determined by the US Department of Agriculture.
"Higher HEI scores are generally associated with higher socioeconomic status, education and income," Tiwari said. "By contrast, cooking dinner at home depends more on the number of children at home. The study showed no association between income or education and eating at home or eating out."
From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the percentage of home-cooked calories consumed in the US fell from 82 to 68.
"A mother who has two jobs and four children, even if she knows the value of home-cooked dinners, doesn't have time to cook," Tiwari said in a news release from OSU.