Not So Convenient, Actually

I’ve said it before, but it looks like I don’t need to say it again.

Someone has finally gone and done a study to prove that convenience food isn’t actually all that convenient (nevermind the long term effects some of it will have on your health).

As it is so succinctly put in this Grist article, just because something is pre-packaged doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any easier in the end.  For example, if you use canned vegetables instead of fresh ones in a casserole dinner, you may save a few moments between opening the can vs washing and preparing a whole food, but it becomes pretty moot once you realize that the food still takes the same amount of time to cook, anyway.  Essentially, it will take you a comparable amount of time to prepare something wretched like Hamburger Helper as it would to cook fresh pasta and toss it with a quick veggie sauce.  So where’s the disconnect?  Is that extra 10 minutes or so of prep time really that hard to come by?

Food prep is relatively minimal unless you’re trying to create elaborate, multi-course meals, anyway.  This is part of the reason why I don’t understand the appeal behind the glut of prep kitchen centres that are popping up all over the burbs, lately.  Why would I want to drive there (or in my case, walk), figure out what I want to make, then pay a premium to assemble a small armies’ worth of dinners in little ziploc baggies amidst a room full of frenetic soccer moms, instead of just being mindful and planning my menus in advance?  There’s no doubt that life has become increasingly hectic, but at a certain point one has to draw the line and make time for the things that are important to them.  Health, would ideally be one such priority.

Meal planning in and of itself is a lost art that could help people save so much time in the kitchen if they bothered or knew how to use it.  Planning a week’s worth of meals and then shopping for the ingredients to prepare them is simply…smart.  You can purchase foods that might be more time-consuming to prepare, and then cook them in bulk so that they are ready for you to use several times over.  An excellent example of this would be cooking with dried beans.  Yes, they usually take 12 hours to soak, but if you soak several portions’ worth and cook them, you can save leftovers to use in other dishes.  A surprisingly small outlay of time on the front end can drastically reduce the time spent further down the road, if you have a plan.  It’s not rocket science; just another version of mise en place.

This article, published back in 2000 provides insight into the declining nature of time spent on food preparation in North America.  Looking back to the 1900’s, food prep and clean up amounted to an expenditure of 44 hours a week, which is understandable since everything was manual.  Advances in household technology throughout the 1920’s helped that number dip below 30 hours a week, and by 1975, it had plummeted to 10 hours per week, what with more women working outside the home or running single parent households.  Extrapolating from the Grist article an average of 52 minutes spent on meals today would put our modern total around the 6 hour mark, a pretty dismal amount when you think about it.  At that rate, some people probably spend more time watching TV in one day than they spend cooking over the course of 7 days!?

Of course, starting in the 50’s and 60’s, the food industry began introducing wave upon wave of “convenience foods” including TV dinners, rehydratable meals and foods sealed into cans (hello, Spam!).  That supposedly convenient food was designed to make our lives easier and get women out of the kitchen in combination with the introduction of kitchen gadgets like the microwave.  Instead, convenience foods have helped to make us fatter (through calorically denser food), lazier (because now we mindlessly shovel food into our mouths in front of the TV), and unhealthier (because making foods convenient apparently means injecting them with extra salts, fats, preservatives and additives to keep them palatable for longer periods of time).  I think I’d rather “waste” my time cooking now rather than being “convenient” in the present and inconvenienced by the mass of doctor’s appointments I’d need in the future because those foods have helped to make me obese, diabetic and unhealthy, thanks.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an element of personal responsibility involved here, too.  As the Grist article also points out, when you make healthier foods available to people, they often tend to choose them.  The issue I see here is that the general public seems so blissfully unaware of how bad most packaged foods are for them.  If you take a look at juice, for example, I bet you that most people if stopped and asked on the street would tell you that juice is relatively healthy.  But, now so many juices are full of added sugars, dyes and god knows what else, that any resemblance to actual fruit is entirely coincidental (Sunny D, I’m looking at you!).  Special K, a cereal often touted by Kellogg’s as a part of a sensible diet plan has salt and high fructose corn syrup as its 5th and 6th ingredients.  Why does a diet cereal need to have high fructose corn syrup in it?  There’s this whole inherent perception of goodness that food conglomerates and marketing masters use to their advantage to convince you that their shit ass product is wholesome, fresh and pure.  Consumers on a whole need to get themselves educated, and spend more time checking out what sort of crap is going into their foods and inevitably, bodies.  Admittedly, some people probably still won’t care when confronted with the truth, but for those that want to do better, it all starts here.  Asking questions will beget answers that might eventually promote positive change.

So, if you want to know that the food you’re eating is healthy, nutritious and beneficial, unfortunately, you’ll have to heed the advice of a tired, old cliché.  If you want something done right, you’ll have to do it yourself (or find someone you trust enough to do it for you).  Only then will we manage to move beyond the food wastelands by voting with our forks for the right to food that’s substantially better.  So I urge you, starting one day this week, put down the KD and pick up some pasta and a hunk of cheese.  Your tastebuds and waistline will thank you for it!

Until next time…

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3 Responses to “Not So Convenient, Actually”

  1. larbo says:

    Great post, Porsha! It’s right on the money: when “convenience” food is neither good for us, fast, cheap, nor convenient, why would anyone buy it, except they just don’t have the skills anymore to even make salad dressing for themselves.

    In addition to planning meals in advance and shopping for several at once, another simple time-saver is to keep a well-stocked pantry. With parmesan cheese on hand, canned tomatoes, whole wheat pasta, olives, anchovies, etc. I always have the makings for a quick dinner when life does get too full to plan ahead.

  2. mochapj says:

    Thanks Larbo, I wholeheartedly agree.

    There was an article on Bitten at the beginning of the year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/dining/07mini.html) that discussed the importance and contents of a well-stocked pantry.

    I credit my overflowing pantry with allowing me to get dinner on the table within 30 minutes many nights out of the week.

    It just makes good sense to have one.

  3. [...] and the Everyman – Porsha looks at the fact that convenience food is not so convenient after [...]

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