Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Myth of Convenience

Convenience foods are simply an attempt to approximate the taste of home cooking, with plenty of added preservatives, fat, and salt to retain flavor even after months of shelf life. Unhealthy, but they save time, right? Well, a new study from UCLA finds that families tend to spend between 30 minutes and an hour making dinner, regardless of whether they used convenience foods or cooked from scratch.
While it's true that a frozen lasagna dish is usually faster to make than homemade lasagna, researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles wanted to find out how convenience foods are used in the real world. After they videotaped family cooking habits, the researchers saw that convenience foods weren't used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.

When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare -- like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods, according to the research, which was published in the July issue of the British Food Journal and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds science, economic and other research.

Says anthropology researcher Margaret Beck from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA, "When people use convenience foods, they are ramping up expectations for how elaborate a dinner should be."

The study is important because convenience foods tend to be high in preservatives, unhealthy fats and sodium. Nutritionists say parents often justify using the less-healthful convenience foods because they feel the time saved in cooking can be used to help kids with homework or play at the end of a busy day. But the discovery that a high use of convenience foods doesn't really put dinner on the table any faster should persuade families to opt for simpler, healthier fare, say health experts.

The article also notes that most Americans take two trips to the grocery store a week, with an average time of 22 minutes a trip. We usually shop for an hour, once a week. Perhaps our longer shopping expeditions have to do with picking up numerous ingredients for meals. The study suggested that the time-saving effects of convenience foods might actually be found at the store, where it's quicker to pick up one prepared item than six or seven components of that same dish.

Frankly, it's a rare occasion when we have more than two dishes for dinner. We usually make one main dish, such as spaghetti and meatballs or macaroni and cheese. I know there's this shining ideal of the standard three-course meal consisting of a meat entree and a vegetable and a starch, but really, how many people cook like that every night? And here's a confession: we don't eat our vegetables every day. I like to eat fresh vegetables, but I'm not going to make a run out to the store just to pick up one green item for a meal. And since we've none of us come down with rickets or scurvy yet, I think that's okay.


bearing said...

I was curious about what counted as a convenience food and what didn't, so I downloaded the original article. I blogged about it here.

Include one canned or frozen vegetable in your recipe and the author of the study dubs that dish a "modified commercial" dish.

Interestingly, she did not count prepackaged tortillas from the grocery store as a convenience food.

CMinor said...

Well, spaghetti and meatballs = a meat and a vegetable and a starch! Toss a little salad on the side and, voila! a four-course dinner!!

Seriously, though, I think they're probably right about the "convenience foods"--especially when you consider that your average frozen lasagna takes about an hour to cook. I think the "homecooked" recipe that I use calls for 35-40 minutes of baking, and preparing the components doesn't take more than 20 minutes. Plus you have control of what goes into the dish.

A lot of those frozen meals taste pretty lousy, too.