Recent research shows convenience food products do not help cooks save time and labor. / Korea Times file photo
By John Krist
Scripps Howard News Service
VENTURA, Calif. -- Convenience foods are hardly new, despite their association with today's industrial food system. For thousands of years before the advent of refrigeration, cooks relied on such products as salted meat and fish, pickled vegetables, cheese and flour to overcome the barriers of time and distance, enabling them to skip laborious steps in the production and processing of raw materials.
For the past century, of course, processing and packaging have also represented attempts by the food industry to capture as large a share of the household food dollar as possible, not merely to solve age-old problems associated with spoilage and portability. Potato chips may be a way of indefinitely extending the shelf life of a potato, but that is the least important of their attributes. Ravioli in a can, microwavable lasagna, pre-washed salad in a bag -- these and thousands of other products are intended to satisfy the modern cook's increasingly urgent desire to save time and labor.
But do they? Not really, according to recent research.
The surprising findings are described in a paper titled ``Dinner preparation in the modern United States," published last month in the peer-reviewed British Food Journal. Study author Margaret Beck, with UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families, videotaped weeknight-dinner preparation twice over four days by 32 dual-income families in Los Angeles. She then examined the footage to categorize meal components and determine how much time each household spent actually preparing the dishes.
Of the 64 dinners Beck analyzed, 70 percent were entirely ``home-cooked," meaning they did not involve dishes purchased at fast-food or takeout restaurants. But in this context, ``home-cooked" is a rather misleading description.
Nearly every meal Beck analyzed involved some sort of commercially prepared food such as frozen stir-fry mixes, Hamburger Helper, barbecued ribs, canned soup and bottled pasta sauce.
Only 22 percent of the meals involved little or no commercially prepared foods. In only three instances did Beck see anyone consulting a cookbook, and she never saw anyone referring to handwritten recipe cards or recipes clipped from magazines or newspapers.
Commercial food products may have provided some advantages to the households that relied on them most extensively, but reduced preparation time was not among them. Beck found no statistically significant difference in total preparation time -- which averaged 52 minutes -- between dinners that involved extensive use of convenience foods and those that involved little.
There was some savings in the ``hands-on" time -- time spent actually manipulating ingredients and heating food -- but it was relatively trivial.
Families that relied most heavily on convenience foods saved only 10 to 12 minutes per meal compared with families that used relatively few such products.
If cooks save almost no time by making heavy use of convenience foods, which are nearly always more expensive than buying raw ingredients and cooking from scratch, why do they do it?
Perceived convenience, a product of marketing unrelated to reality, may be one reason. But Beck offers several other possibilities: it takes less time to plan and shop if all one does is grab ready-made meals off the store shelves; it requires no real culinary skill to prepare a meal by following the printed directions on a package; commercial foods allow a wider array of dishes to be incorporated into a meal for the same time investment.
It's difficult to reconcile this model of meal preparation with a popular culture awash in highly rated cooking shows, best-selling cookbooks and passionate debates about organic certification. Perhaps true cooking in the United States is making its final leap from essential household task to mere entertainment, something Americans enjoy reading and talking about or watching others do, but something most of them no longer have the inclination or skill to do themselves.
If so, the circumstances evoked by Beck's research would represent a final severing of the tenuous link between those who produce food and those who consume it. The sterile displays of meat, milk, eggs and produce in the typical supermarket already give little hint of the messy realities of field, barn, orchard and slaughterhouse. How much harder will it be to envision and appreciate the origins of a meal when the ingredients look like boxes, bags and cans rather than actual food?
John Krist is a senior editor and Opinion page columnist for the Ventura County Star. To read previous columns, visit http://www.johnkrist.com. His e-mail address is jkrist@VenturaCountyStar.com.)
The article is distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, (www.shns.com).