A really inconvenient truth

Someone who has recently come to my blog (our new tenant- Yeah!, and welcome to Hampton Roads!), sent me a link to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal regarding convenience foods and the time they really save in the kitchen, which turns out to be... very little. As Tara Parker-Pope reports, convenience foods are not really used by families to prepare meals in less time, but instead provide a way for families to eat more intricate meals, often at the expense of nutrition and healthful eating.

The cooking habits of 32 middle-class Los Angeles families with two working parents were monitored by UCLA researchers, who knew they were part of a study, but they didn't know the use of convenience foods was the focus of the study. Researchers found that meals with little or no convenience foods took between 26 and 93 minutes to prepare, while meals relying on convenience foods took between 25 and 73 minutes to prepare, yielding no significant difference in preparation time.

Convenience foods did save about 10 minutes of preparation time-the time spent cutting, chopping, and stirring ingredients, but did not result in the food getting to the table more quickly (isn't that the point of convenience foods?) The only significant time savings was the time saved grocery shopping, where it took much less time to grab frozen entrees than to shop for the several ingredients to make a from-scratch meal.

This just confirmed my feelings when I began this blog - that way too many busy people thought they didn't have time or energy to cook a great meal for their family, and therefore were not developing, or fostering in their children, healthy attitudes toward food and eating. Now, I would be the last person to say that you should never have convenience foods. I am not above pulling out a Stouffer's lasagna or a canned soup once in awhile, but by relying routinely on convenience foods, you are not only filling up on foods with more sodium , fat and preservatives than you need, you are depriving yourself and your family of the fun that comes from working hands-on with fresh ingredients, herbs, and the tools and techniques that make them into something not only healthy but memorable.

Another interesting finding of this study was that families who prepared their own meals from fresh ingredients made simpler meals than those who relied on so-called convenience foods. You will see from many of my own posts and many of the best cooking sites on the Web that a simple meal can be fast and delicious. What time do you save by buying Hamburger Helper? You can just as easily brown ground beef (or meat substitute) with onions, cook whole grain macaroni, and stir in grated cheese with some milk and by doing so save tons of fat, sodium, and ingredients with names you haven't hard since General Chem class. And guess what? It will take the same time (+ or - 5 minutes) and it will taste better!

The article offer some sites to go or tips on cooking from scratch, and many food bloggers offer advice on stocking a pantry so that you can throw a quick and healthy meal together that is economical, healthy and delicious. You can find similar posts and features on the sites of many of our fellow bloggers, as well. So plan ahead, prep ahead (keep staples like chopped onions in the freezer in a ziploc), and you will be eating healthier and happier (and almost as fast) by playing with food. You won't be sorry.

Mix and match, hot or cold quick pasta dinner

This is more a formula than a recipe, so use this as inspiration and whip up a great meal in less time than it would take you to heat that frozen meal.

1/2 pound cooked pasta, any variety (I like longer noodles for a hot dish, and shorter pasta shapes for cool dishes

3 cups mixed chopped veggies (red and green peppers, chopped up broccoli, sliced mushrooms, zucchini, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, or even leftover veggies are good- saute in a bit of oil while the pasta is cooking if you want a hot pasta dish, just chop if you are serving as a cold pasta salad)

If you are serving Cold: 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup red or white wine vinegar, fresh herbs (thyme, dill, chives are all good; or if you don't have fresh, use dried Italian seasoning)

If you are serving Hot: 4 ounces neufchatel cheese, 1/4 cup grated cheese (cheddar, parmesan, gouda are all good choices) and 1/4 cup fat free half and half.

Mix sauce ingredients together and toss with pasta. Enjoy with a green salad or melon! That's food that is convenient and delicious!


s'kat said…
I'll unashamedly cop to having a stouffer's lasagne in the freezer, and bagged salad greens in the fridge.

Otherwise, you are right on the mark! Getting in the kitchen is fun, doesn't take too long if you keep it simple- just look at Mark Bittman's 101 quick meals in the latest NYT. It doesn't get any faster than that!
SteamyKitchen said…
What a great article - thanks for the information. I'm going to look deeper into this and write about this in my next food column.
kitchenmage said…
I have so little premade food in my house that since my oven died ten days ago, I am at a loss to cook. There's nothing in a box in my pantry or freezer...and I just can't think that way anyway. Luckily the oven will be fixed/replaced soon but until then I am the un-cook. Just weird.
Deborah Dowd said…
Shelley- What is lofe without uilty pleasures?

SteamyKitchen- I was very intrigued and thankful to my new tenant for pointing me to this- I look forward to reading your take!

Kitchenmage- I'm not worthy! I am really impressed, but I guess the flip side is you are so dependent on your oven (RIP). After Hurricane Isabel we were without power for 14 days, and I could only use my gas cooktop- it was quite an experience! Here's hoping for a quick, cheap and complete repair that will restore you to your rightful place a a kitchen magician!