Processed foods are said to be higher in calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fat than natural foods, but pre-packaged, processed meals remain a popular choice for many consumers because they reduce the energy, time and cooking skills needed to prepare food. That’s why researchers from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and Duke University, Durham, N.C., examined reasons why parents purchase pre-packaged, processed foods.

Although the majority (57%) of parents surveyed identified time savings as a reason for purchasing frozen dinners, results from the study, "Reasons Parents Buy Prepackaged Processed Meals: It Is More Complicated Than 'I Dont Have Time,'" were more complex. With data from the HOME Plus randomized controlled trial, researchers used a psychosocial survey to assess the motivation of parents in buying pre-packaged, processed foods. Nearly half (49%) of parents reported buying ready meals because their families really liked the meals, one third chose processed foods because children could help prepare them and more than one quarter (27%) preferred the cost savings of frozen dinners.

“Because of the convenience and marketing of pre-packaged, processed meals, it is not entirely surprising that most parents buy frozen dinners to save time on preparation,” says Melissa Horning, lead author.

Previous studies showed a link between purchasing frozen dinners and the desire to save time, but researchers also found a link between parents working more hours per week and choosing to purchase pre-packaged, processed meals. Likewise, indicating any reason for purchasing frozen dinners other than “they are easy for my child to prepare” was linked to parents have lower cooking self-efficacy and meal-planning ability.

The results of this study raise some concerns, namely that choosing pre-packaged, processed meals was linked to less fruit and vegetable availability, greater availability of less nutritious foods and lower cooking self-efficacy and meal-planning skills. The researchers suggest that future studies address these concerns.

“If parents are not confident in their ability to cook pre-packaged [foods], processed meals are an appealing, but less nutritious option,” Horning says. “Parental attributes of self-efficacy for cooking healthful meals and meal-planning ability are modifiable, and new research should confirm our findings and explore interventions to enhance parents' skills and abilities.”