DALLAS -- Many people think preparing home-cooked meals means hours spent shopping for and cooking the food.
With increasingly busy schedules for most families, that amount of time simply isn't available.
With time in short supply, families feel the need to trade time spent in the kitchen for what they believe is faster: convenience foods, takeout and restaurant meals.
People may believe they are saving time by eating frozen or deli convenience foods and fast-food, but they are losing in other ways.
"They have more sodium, more fat and not as many fresh vegetables or whole grains," said Debra Minar Driscoll with Oregon State University Polk County Extension Service. "They are not really a good source of nutrition."
Plus, people are missing out on knowledge of where the food comes from and how it is prepared, she said.
However, not having a lot of time doesn't mean you have to forgo preparing wholesome food and spending time with family at the dinner table.
Debra Minar Driscoll
With some planning, a healthy dinner can be served in less time than you think.
Driscoll recently taught "The Efficient Cook" in Dallas. The course was designed to teach people how to save time, money and energy while still making healthy meals.
She said the first place people can become more efficient is in how they plan for meals and shop for food.
How much time and money could you save if you planned meals ahead of time, went to the grocery store just once per week, and eliminated most of the drive-through/takeout/restaurant wait and expense?
Driscoll said just taking fewer trips to the store can save money, not to mention time.
"The more you go into the store, the more you spend," she said.
Simple planning, like making a grocery list before heading into the store and stocking your pantry with enough ingredients for a week's meals, is a good start.
Other tips, such as preparing meals on weekends and freezing them for use on weekdays or making meal plans and associated grocery lists that can be reused, can streamline meal preparation.
Annette Williams of Extension's Amity Family and Community Education group took Driscoll's class so she could teach it to others. Although she was there to learn to be a class leader, she said it gave her a few ideas to manage her own time in the kitchen and grocery store.
"Most of us are getting away from the sit-down dinner," she said.
Williams used her own family as an example -- her kids are busy with activities and she and her husband both work. No one is at home early to start dinner.
"After working all day, I don't want to cook dinner," she said. "This made me so excited to cook again."
In a final bit of advice, Driscoll said people shouldn't talk themselves out of cooking at home with unrealistic expectations.
"Keep it simple," Driscoll said. "People don't have to make something complicated."
For more information about planning meals, go to Oregon State University's "Food Hero" website: www.foodhero.org.
For more information about portion sizes, health and nutrition, go the United States Department of Agriculture's "Choose My Plate" website at www.choosemyplate.gov.
Save time in the kitchen:
* Plan meals ahead of time and make a grocery list with needed ingredients.
* Incorporate ingredients in pantry or refrigerator into menus before shopping.
* Shop just once per week.
* Store often-used kitchen equipment in easy-to-reach places.
* Post menus so other family members can get the meal started early.
* Share shopping, cooking and cleanup tasks with others in your household.
* Use a slow cooker to do the work for you while you work or tend to other tasks.
* Make the best use of the freezer to: freeze fresh meats and produce to prevent spoiling; freeze individual portions of leftovers to reheat later; and cook extra (double or triple recipes) and freeze to eat later.
* What not to freeze: blocks of cheese, potato and macaroni salad, milk-based sauces and gravies, sour cream, mayonnaise or salad dressing, crumb toppings, gelatin, fruit jelly, plain pasta or rice, and highly seasoned dishes.
Source: OSU Extension
The upside of eating with family:
* Children who eat with family are less likely to become overweight or obese, smoke, drink, try illicit drugs, or abuse prescription drugs.
* Children who eat with their family earn better grades.
* Parents and children who eat together develop better communication patterns and parents are more likely to hear about a serious problem.
* Families who eat together experience less stress and tension at home.
Source: "Family Dinners are Important" by Jeanie Lerche Davis. WebMD Feature article.
The downside of not cooking at home:
* Loss of cooking skills.
* Loss of appreciation for where food comes from.
* Increased food expenses.
* Less control over the freshness of ingredients and how they are prepared.
Source: OSU Extension
How homemade meals can be better:
* Food prepared at home often has less sugar, fat and sodium and more fresh fruit and vegetables.
* You have more control over portion sizes, ingredients and how food is prepared.
* If planned correctly, cooking at home saves time (no driving to a restaurant, waiting for a table and waiting to be served) and money.
Source: "Eating Out Vs. Eating at Home" by Dave Fouts and Vicki Bovee