Healthy Meals on a Budget: Nutrition that Works for Real Families

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Community Commons

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Lou Hurst, Community Action Council | Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen a revolution in awareness about food quality, sustainability, and equitable food access. However, for many families living in or near poverty there remains a frustrating disconnect from the promise of “healthy eating.”

In practice, household food management is a complex, messy business involving many factors beyond the availability of healthy foods. Some families have persistent beliefs that healthy foods are unaffordable, or hard and time-consuming to prepare. Some are overwhelmed by navigating grocery stores, markets and restaurants, or misled by aggressive marketing and complicated labeling. And in many families, long-ingrained cultural habits and practices, overlaid with day-to-day family dynamics, make it a real challenge to transform dietary habits.

To address this reality,  Community Action Council, a community action agency based in central Kentucky, launched Healthy Meals on a Budget—an interactive family nutrition education program operated as an extension of its Head Start programs and funded by the city government of Lexington. Healthy Meals on a Budget is designed to meet  low income families with small children where they are, paying sympathetic attention to the multiple barriers—real and perceived—that these families may face in household food management.

Through hands-on workshops and open discussion, the program gives families practical education on food selection, purchasing, and preparation, placing equal emphasis on nutrition and household economy. Families are provided with interactive demonstrations of how to prepare a full meal that represents a healthful and affordable alternative to a more common dish. With vivid demonstrations and visual aids, families learn in detail both the nutritional benefits and the cost savings of the meal substitution.

Participants of all ages are invited to ask questions and discuss issues relevant to the meal. Discussion topics have included: responding to food marketing; accessing and navigating grocery stores, markets, restaurants, and other food outlets, with an emphasis on the specifics of the local food scene; reading nutrition labels; safe food handling; interpreting sell-by and expiration dates; avoiding food spoilage and waste; and the availability of community resources and services such as SNAP, WIC, and food pantries that can help families meet their nutrition needs. Finally, families are invited to share the meal in a group setting.

Beyond being fun family bonding and learning experiences, the workshops are designed to serve as springboards for families to transform their own daily habits at home—including improvising their own recipes and routines, as well as having ongoing discussions about nutrition.

Since its launch, Healthy Meals on a Budget has reached over 90 families. Some sessions have been tailored for specific groups. For instance, two sessions have been conducted for a fatherhood engagement group that provides regular education and support for fathers who are seeking to become more involved in their children’s lives; two others took place at Chrysalis House, a residential facility for mothers affected by substance use disorders. Still another workshop was adapted for the Foster Grandparent program, which includes senior volunteers who assist with child development in the classroom. One Spanish-only session was conducted in a Lexington neighborhood that has a high Hispanic population and operates a migrant and seasonal Head Start.

Similar to that of common Head Start initiatives, Healthy Meals on a Budget takes a two-generational approach to education. This approach is based on the understanding that early childhood outcomes are dependent on the entire family context, and children’s needs are best met when their other family members simultaneously receive support in their goals. In the case of nutrition, parents have a profound effect on children’s current and future diet— both directly, through the foods they buy and prepare for the household, and indirectly, through their modeling of dietary behaviors. However, children themselves play a large role in their household’s food economy by expressing their tastes and preferences, by helping in food shopping and preparation, and by sharing their own understanding of “healthy food.” The Council believes that any meaningful efforts to address household nutrition must engage both generations as learners and active participants.

Suboptimal household food management contributes to significant health risks, including malnutrition, obesity and related conditions, and even food-borne illnesses—all of which allow income-based health disparities to persist in the U.S. To address the gap, sound nutrition education will always be critical, as will be community-wide efforts to ensure that all families have access to quality foods. But in order to fully participate in the food economy as informed consumers, families can use guidance that is practical and context-specific and understands their needs. Healthy Meals on a Budget is breaking ground in helping families negotiate food affordability, convenience, dietary quality, and health.


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