Why Convenience Made Us Fat: the Case for DIY Cooking

Nature had it right, but we weren’t satisfied. We wanted it easier, quicker, better. Ironies! We’re now finding that - though it may be easier and quicker - it’s NOT better, and could be, in fact, much worse for you.

In an article written in 1985 for the American Journal of Economics, Oral Capps, Jr., John R Tedford, and Joseph Havlicek, Jr., have the following to say:

During the past few decades, a myriad of convenience foods, particularly canned foods, frozen items, and mixes, have been introduced into the marketplace. Convenience food products transfer the time and activities of preparation from the household manager to the food processor.

They go on to designate different classes to convenience. Firstly, the basic convenience class. In this domain falls the canned tomato, the dried herb, and the frozen corn. It is the class of preservation. The second class is the complex convenience class - composed of mixes, multi-ingredient “foods” composed in such a way as to save time and/or energy as well as help the cook who has little “culinary expertise.” The third class is manufactured convenience - those foods which are already “made” and only need a bit of heat or a fork in order to be eaten - or worse, nothing at all (a bag of potato chips, a fast-food drive-thru).

If we “take this and run with it” we can easily see how our nation, through the past century, has progressed from the first, to the second, to the third - in rapid succession.

According to Webster’s Online Dictionary,

Studies show that by 1965, 27 to 30 percent of US households had significantly incorporated convenience foods into their diets. By the 1990s, convenience foods in the US and UK compromised a large portion of the average diet. In the US, several studies indicate that many families diets consist entirely of convenience foods and fast food. By the 21st century, nearly every US household uses convenience foods in one form or another.

But how did this all happen? Just to give you a taste...

In his book, Consumption, Food, and Taste, Alan Warde unveils the difference (“Convenience or Care: Advertising the Antimony”) by citing headlines from controversial ads: “Cold hands, warm heart. It’s not about the love, it’s about the pastry.” The same ad continues, “You can still enjoy the smell of fresh baking wafting from the kitchen. You can still experience the taste of crisp pastry eaten hot from the oven. You just miss out on the hassle.”

Warde goes on to say that

This in many ways epitomizes the dilemma of convenience against care. Home cooking is declared the way to a man’s heart. It is the proper way to cherish a family. Food is an express of love, and a sacrifice too - a labor of love. You can do it, and indeed would do it, if only you had the time - how could you not, given what it means. But of course you are sometimes busy! You would not choose easy ways out just because you are insufficiently skilled, but because there are other demands upon you. Then you can use the made-up version. This contains Stork [the quoted advertiser] ingredients, a branded guarantee of good quality. The commodity is a perfect substitute. Or, if not quite perfect, it will still perform the function of expressing love and care. It is simultaneously the same thing and the next-best thing. The outcome will be perfect, and, though the advertisement does not say so, it implies that nobody will be able to tell the difference.

And so, though this particular ad bit the dust because it was too stark in it’s comparison (or so it was supposed, and probably likely), we see quite clearly how the “excuse” for convenience foods as an alternate quick-fix came to be accepted. Over time, the quick-fix became the common-fix, the "if-I-did-it-yesterday-why-not-today" excuse, leading to (fast-forwarding to today) a serious case of amnesia: we’ve forgotten what life was like - not only entirely without convenience foods, but when convenience foods were the grave exception to the rule; ads like these made them the occasional exception to the rule, and finally, thanks to the post-WWII industrialization of food, the rule that made homemade pie the exception.

I think that, if we did the research, we’d find our national weight to go up, hand in hand, with the amount of convenience foods consumed. The more we were fed (rather than the more we made), the plumper we became. The ONLY way to get back to what we have lost is to - well, quite simply - remake it, before it’s completely gone. At this time, we’re grasping at straws. Many of us have never learned how to make a pie, let alone grind wheat or churn butter. We haven’t needed to... but if we want to rescue our health (and perhaps more importantly, the health of our children!) we need to LEARN TO DIY!!!! The kitchen shouldn’t be a daunting place - it should be a gathering place!

Convenience, in a nutshell, wasn’t really convenient. Perhaps it was profitable for some; perhaps it afforded us time - time to do “other things”. But I wager that the time spent with family in the kitchen is time that can’t be matched by other things. I guarantee that the cost of ceding family time to general convenience is much more than the price on the packaged food... kids grow up, life goes on, and well, that time was spent - where? In front of the TV? On the internet? At work?... was it really worth it, then, to buy those frozen salisbury steaks? - Not to mention the health benefit of either side - the obesity epidemic that is the result of convenience foods, versus the wholesome, made-from-scratch-and-love benefit of slow food, kitchen food, family food. Both body and soul benefit - and not just at that meal, but for months and years to come ... the effect of that kind of food is cumulative; this cannot be denied. Memories are made around real food, while convenience food snatches away that blessed “memory-making” time from the family.

Convenience... who would have guessed it would make us sad, fat and lonely? ... We were conned. But likewise, we can be unconned. To rephrase an old saying,

Raise your glasses, clink your mugs! We’re eating food, instead of drugs!

Don’t be doped. Those ten minutes - maybe just a little more - are worth their weight in gold! Teach your toddler to fry an egg; show your teenager how to bring a meal together. Learn so yourself, from books and websites, if you haven’t learned before. Yes, it takes a leap of faith; but that faith, that belief, is grounded in reality - not so with convenience. The foods that make us fat are the foods that hold no value to our memories - we didn’t make them, we bought them. Where’s the memory in that? So, dig deep. Give yourself the best reason in the world - family, friends, posterity - to learn and use that which you have not... from personal experience I can say, convenience takes away a lot of the fun AND taste of food! It deprives you of the fun of experiment; it takes you away from the kitchen (ironically) and thereby, from your family and friends. Make your kitchen your hearth, your gathering-place; make your cutting board a reason to talk about life, your stove a medium for deep conversation, and your dining table the deepest connection to those nearest and dearest to you.

The price of real food can’t be measured. It can’t be put on sale. It’s priceless.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! Excellent!
    That definitely ties in with something I was reading yesterday about convenience. Quite wonderfully put here.

    One thought that I wanted to add is this, something I read yesterday: convenience products promise to be easy, but they don't actually promise to save time - many people mistakenly believe that convenience food does both. In some cases, it does (such as fast food, drive thru type food), but in other cases, it doesn't. Those frozen TV dinners (those sodium-loaded, beef-flavored chunks of preservatives) take from 20 to 40 minutes to cook in the oven. There are dinners from scratch that take that much time or less!

    Finally, I think that this all ties in very much with another topic on which I was reading lately: living deliberately. If we THINK first and then act; if we make a plan and then follow it; if we live deliberately, a lot of this would be remedied.
    If we kept an eye on the time we spent online. If we realized that it takes five minutes - not an hour! - to peel those carrots and make carrots sticks. If we realized that it takes 30 seconds to wash fresh grapes instead of opening that bag of Doritos. If we remembered to USE the fresh produce before it went bad (ah, the convenience of foods that stay good at room temperature for weeks!). Anyway, you get the idea. Deliberate living. (The same thing goes for money. Thinking before we spend. I've come across some really good thoughts on that recently as well!)