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Conveinence based meals take as much time as "from scratch" meals

This article summarizes a study about American family dinners (www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/20...) - but one of the big take aways is that dinners made from convenience foods take as much time to make as food with minimal to no convenience foods.

I'm sure the book goes into more details about the study, but I'm curious about how time was measured relating to meals and what was used to define "convenience food". I think that highlighting what ultimates takes as much/more time as "from scratch" would be interesting - but the article doesn't really take the time to explain why those numbers are the same. Also, the article does a lot of comparisons to families in Italy - but it doesn't say if the same research was done on Italian families or if more of an anecdotal approach was used.

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  1. Interesting. I wonder if those who cook completely from scratch tend to be more skilled and therefore faster than those cooking from semi-prepared.

    1. Really a lovely article, and a bit sad. I'm surprised many parents don't order their kids to eat with them. I mean isn't that what being a parent is about?

      1. That simply cannot be true.

        Let's take risotto.

        The "from scratch" approach would be, what? Make your own stock (4 hours min), prep your additions to the risotto (e.g. onions, garlic, mushrooms, etc.) (5 minutes?), make soffrito and cook the rice, etc. (15-20 minutes?).

        The "convenience food" approach would be, what? Used canned or box stock (1 minute to open), use preminced and diced aromatics (1-2 minute to open jar and scoop out serving), make soffrito and cook rice (15-20 minutes).

        If this were a race, I'd take the convenience food to win every single time. I'll even give you odds.

        4 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          I agree with this. I don't see how it really does take the same amount of time for convenience foods vs totally from scratch.

          I think of something like spaghetti and meatballs. From scratch, it can take an hour or two, depending on how long you let your sauce simmer and how quick you are at making meatballs (I'm still assuming store-bought pasta). But from convenience foods (jarred sauce, store-bought pasta, frozen meatballs), it only takes as long as it would take for the meatballs to heat up and the pasta to cook... so 20 minutes maybe?

          I am also sad that more families don't eat together. I understand it can be hard as kids get older and have more after school activities etc, but I think at least on weekends there should be a meal eaten together as a family.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            This is why I want to know more about how they counted these things. Within the realm of convenience foods you have to also include frozen dinners - which - there's no way that adds up to 50 minutes. Also, what even counts as a convenience food - is jarred tomato sauce one? Are canned beans? Or are only frozen meals.

            However, if total time cooked at home over the week was calculated, I could see how that might balance out. I spend a few hours one or two times a week making a lot of food, so that during the week I essentially have my own "convenience foods" and meals can easily be just heating up prepared food.

            Expanding from that, I could see a case where families that rely on convenience foods perhaps don't do as much meal planning where one meal provides leftovers that become the base for a new meal. But like I said originally, I'd want more information on how those numbers were counted.

            1. re: cresyd

              that's the problem, unfortunately, with the popular press (and I'm not singling out The Atlantic here -- there are plenty of others who do the same thing) -- they're very good at gasping and rolling their eyes and jumping to half-baked conclusions....but they're pretty awful at presenting actual facts.

              and as you so well know, cresyd, there's a gulf of difference between how one shops and cooks in the US versus how one shops and cooks in Europe-- and neither is inherently bad; but they're vastly, vastly different.

              1. re: sunshine842

                Completely different.

                Normally I like how the Atlantic presents studies, but this article just seems to miss a crucial point. If the point is that people who cook from scratch spend the same amount of time cooking as people who use convenience foods - then it's helpful to explain how that works. One thing that makes sense to me in a very loose way is that people who cook from scratch plan their meals more and plan for one period of cooking to cover multiple meals.

                Overall I guess it's an interesting place to start asking questions, but on its own doesn't provide any major answers.

          2. As I understand "convenience foods" and "from scratch," the study can't be right. Italy is mentioned. Are we to believe that pasta made from scratch takes no longer to prepare than dry pasta out of the box? Come on now.

            2 Replies
            1. re: John Francis

              Without seeing the study and commiting to get at the book - we don't know how convenience foods are defined. Also, along with "from scratch" includes meals made with "minimal" convenience foods - none of which we know how is defined. Also, unless I read the article wrong - the study battery was only conducted on families in Los Angeles and "Italian families" were never studied but more used as anecdotal comparison. Another feature of the article where it was unclear what kind of actual research had been done.

              As this is a study that came out of UCLA, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt that the term "convenience food" was clearly defined. Dried pasta, canned beans - can all be seen as convenience foods. And if you want to get super fussy, so can cheese, butter, yogurt, tomato paste, everything that wasn't picked from the ground or in its most pure FDA approved form from the animal.

              In an American food context - I would argue that none of the foods I mentioned above count as convenience foods. So it would be interesting to see what was on the list of yes and no.

              1. re: cresyd

                those wouldn't be considered convenience foods in my part of Europe, either. If you're cookin with cheese, butter, yogurt, etc -- you're cookin from scratch.

                Can I whip up a grilled sandwich or an omelet faster than I can prepare a baked lasagna that takes 45 minutes from frozen? Of course.

                Can I prepare a baked lasagna in 45 minutes, even if I use bottled sauce as a base? Hell, no.

                If I make my own sauce (which I usually do) that lasagna will take a day and a half, because the sauce gets made the day before.

            2. The article mentions individual serving portion sizes several times. The time it takes to defrost and reheat individual servings in a microwave can take longer than preparing in bulk from scratch to feed a family.


              1 Reply
              1. re: Melanie Wong

                I think what the article shows the most is that when you commit to cooking more at home (in this case slow food cooking, but there are a variety of definitions of what "from scratch" means without going after someone from using canned beans or dried pasta) - it requires more thought and planning. And once that thinking ahead and planning becomes more routine, then I think the balance of spending lots of time a few times a week and then being able to enjoy much quicker meals the rest of the time becomes easier.

              2. One consideration is that when you cook from scratch regularly you get much, much more efficient.

                I can probably make a basic meal of pasta with a quick home-made sauce (tomato or cheese), a salad, and a side of vegetables in the same amount of time it takes a non-cook to make the same meal, using pasta sauce from a jar, bagged salad, and frozen seasoned vegetables. Boiling water and cooking pasta still takes about 20 minutes, which gives a minimum time scale.

                The other night I timed myself out of curiosity, and I produced a quick meal for two of home-made tomato and onion soup (using canned tomatoes), grilled cheese sandwiches, and salad with home-made dressing within 25 minutes of arriving home.

                Of course, most of the meals I cook take longer than this, but often they involve time when the food is cooking and I can do other things.

                1. I don't know, but I can have my family eating in about 10 minutes after walking in the door with a rotisserie chicken and deli fruit salad. Pop a few slices of bread in the toaster, then divide up the chicken and fruit and pour some glasses of milk and dinner is served.

                  I can't even heat the oven to roast a chicken in that time.

                  This article needs some fleshing out to be in any way persuasive.

                  Funnily enough and completely coincidentally, we had a mostly from scratch vs. convenience food show-down in our kitchen last night. After we put our toddler to bed, my husband turned on the oven and pulled a frozen pizza out of the deep freeze for dinner, not knowing I had my eye on a couple of chicken breasts in the fridge that I feared would go bad.

                  I went ahead and prepared my chicken stir fry anyway, figuring either the chicken or the pizza could be lunch for tomorrow. I served the stir fry over microwave rice--90 seconds--before his pizza was done baking and cooling.

                  Note that I didn't follow any recipes for my stir-fry and didn't measure everything--if I had, my stir-fry would have taken longer (might have tasted a little better, too, as something was a little out of balance with my dish. I definitely overdid the red pepper flakes.) Oh, and I did use pre-chopped garlic and ginger, so i guess that was cheating a little, too. But, again, I don't think chopping garlic and ginger from scratch would have been faster than scooping it out of the jars...

                  On the other hand, he was left with barely any dishes (pizza cutter right on the cardboard flat that you set under the pizza), whereas I had a pan, mixing bowl, knives, cutting boards, and several spoons and cooking utensils to contend with. Heck, you didn't even have to use any plates to eat the pizza, if you didn't want. By the time you take clean up into account, he was ahead time-wise.

                  So, cooking time for stir fry was faster than his convenience-food pizza (though I did cheat and use microwave rice and pre-chopped garlic and ginger). However, it's kind of comparing apples to oranges (ie., stir fry to oven-baked pizza). The gap between the time it took to prepare the stir fry and pizza from scratch would have been at least as long, as the time to heat the oven and cook and cool the pizza would have been about the same.

                  I think the article is also trying to make a point about the kinds of choices families who rely on convenience foods make, e.g. buying convenience foods in individual servings vs. scratch meals that are presumably served, well, family style. But, I'm not sure what their other conclusions are.

                  I don't think they are really saying that preparing any given dish from scratch vs. its convenience/prepackaged counterpart is any faster, but that the overall strategy of cooking from scratch ends up being faster than cooking from prepackaged convenience foods.I wonder how it compares time-wise when you take shopping and clean-up into effect, though.

                  I wish the article were better written because I really am curious about the point they are trying to make.


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    Excellent point about dishes. To risk using a bad pun, for a busy family, cleaning dishes/the kitchen is hardly 'garbage time'.

                    Still I agree, I don't particularly want to read the entire book but would have greatly appreciated a better summary of the findings.

                  2. An interesting point from the article, aside from the time factor, was that with convenience foods and take out families were less likely to eat together.

                    Each family member would be inclined to take their individual serving and go off to watch TV (or whatever). Each person might also choose to eat at different times when individual serving food was readily available.