I found this article from The Atlantic through a friend - about how convenience foods at dinnertime (and in general) don't really save you time. As a food blogger, it struck a chord with me and got me to start thinking about how much convenience foods we do or do not use in our own household. We have come a long way, from when we first moved in together and ate a lot from boxes and jars, to now, when more than seventy percent of our meals are scratch-made.
The article explores a study done of Los Angeles families to show the impact of convenience foods on the lives of parents and children, but I am looking at it from a different perspective - that of a twosome household. The one paragraph that stuck out most to me from the entire article was when the author says:
The home-cooked meals took an average of 34 minutes of hands-on time and a total of 52 minutes to prepare. As the term suggests, preprepared "convenience" foods should take less time to prepare than cooking from scratch with fresh or raw ingredients. Heavy reliance on commercial food did reduce hands-on time significantly, but the difference was only 10 to 12 minutes.
In a world dominated by fast meals, this was intriguing to me, and it made me take a step back and look at what we cook on a regular basis, where it comes from, and how I can simplify (or de-simplify) those food. Thinking about it, I am not surprised that commercial food only reduced hands-on cooking time by about ten minutes. When we cook using pre-packaged foods, it's mostly to reduce prep time. I will the the first to admit that I don't think that removing all packaged foods is the answer - I for one quite like jarred pasta sauce. I like to buy frozen fries for how they taste, but I do realize that in the time it takes for my oven to preheat, I can make my own by slicing potatoes and tossing them with olive oil, salt, and pepper before baking them for an extended period of time.
There are many days where reduced prep time is important to me - days when I want to spend less time standing in the kitchen. Those are the days where I am tired, sore, crabby, or wanting familiarity without having to overthink the ingredients. In the past, I would make pasta sauce from scratch, but lately I've been using jarred. It's a set-it-and-forget-it meal (well, you do have to pay attention to the timer but overall, it prepares itself).
Of course, that is another benefit I have found in pre-made foods: they don't involve a lot of skill to complete. For a new cook, it may be a great way to increase confidence in the kitchen to start with quick or convenience foods. They are easy to prepare and consistent in flavor, texture, and quality, so the results are basically the same every time. It's a great benefit, as long as you realize that made-from-scratch foods, while consistent, may not be exactly the same. What I think of most when saying this is mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes, and we make them at minimum twice a month. We also like to buy refrigerated mashed potatoes for convenience, and often pair them with a refrigerated pre-cooked entree when we are short for time. The whole meal comes together in about fifteen minutes and is always great.
In addition to pasta, I will often use frozen vegetables to start a meal. From the article, I am not sure where that falls in the realm of premade foods. Because they are typically flash-frozen, I think they cut out some prep time in terms of washing and chopping, but take time to heat up and cook through. I also love using refrigerated mashed potatoes instead of making my own when making shepherd's pie. They cook quickly and involve less overall work, and let me focus my attention on making a very good meat-and-vegetable filling for the dish.
Another paragraph that caught my eye within the article was this one, near the end, which came after a discussion on the family dinner:
Although heavy reliance on convenience foods does not predict a scattering of family members at dinnertime, their individual packaging and low-skill (but not significantly less time-consuming) preparation may encourage family members to eat at different times and places, even when the whole family is at home.
I have found, at times, this is true. When we have convenience foods in the house, it is more likely that one of us will snack and not be hungry come dinner time. Incidentally, we will be together, in the same room, but we will not be enjoying a meal together. At times this can be disconcerting, but because it happens so rarely, it is not something that concerns me. It is something I am filing away for our future, in hopes of reducing the amount of snack-foods we have on hand for our future children. At the same time, I want to encourage independence, cooking, and freedom in the kitchen. My love for cooking got started with scrambled eggs, boxed macaroni and cheese, and canned soups and grew from there to made-from-scratch pancakes, cookies, fajitas and taco seasoning and more. It's a love I hope to pass to my future children.
Convenience foods and premade foods have their place and time, and I think it depends on each family to determine when and where that is. In my household, it often is a pre-cooked microwaveable dinner on nights we aer going to be out late - something we don't have to think about in terms of cooking or prep time, but it delicious every time. Someone else's household may be different. However, after giving the article multiple reads over the past day and a half, I can say I agree with its overall premise regarding snack foods, premade foods, prep time, and family dinners. And that is food for thought.