Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cooking Quick

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats on $6/day.

About a week ago, I came across a link for this article by Pete Wells who wrote "Cooking with Dexter." In it we read of a father who sometimes cooks with his kids (good), and who is trying to be honest about how much he actually cooks with them (still good) and about how, as a working father, it's not always easy or even possible to do so (I'm still with him). But then he goes on to state that many people who work a lot (and by his description of a lot--even while in bed--I took it to mean a whole awful lot, 12 to 15-hour days) are just "too busy to cook." At least not on any kind of a regular basis (perhaps this is true, but it was starting to ruffle my feathers a bit). His solution? Having processed foods that wouldn't make people fat or sick. That was it. Problem solved. I'll write Santa today and let him know.

Thinking that I may have just been in a grumpy mood when I first read it, I read it again today. It still got under my skin.

This is why.

First off, working too much to cook is a choice. It may even be the best choice for you. It may keep you fed period. Or in your house. Or in your lifestyle. But it is still a choice. And, as with all choices, it comes with consequences--some of them good; some of them bad. It's up to us to decide if the good outweigh the bad. And then it is my belief that it's up to us to do our best to deal with, and fix as much as possible, the consquences that may be negative. It's not the government's job. And it's not the food industry's job. The idea that someone else must ease the consequences of our choices because it appears that the Joneses don't have any negative consequences to their choices as they live their gold-paved lives, is frankly ridiculous to me, not to mention extremely disempowering for each of us.

Secondly, what exactly does he expect the government or the food industry to do? If he expects both government and food industry to work together in a truly philanthropic enterprise to ensure that our processed food is as utterly healthy and inexpensive as it can possibly be, then he has a good bit more faith in the system than I do. Also, he is clearly on LSD. So now that I'm done writing to Santa, I'm going to run out back and see if the money tree I ordered by mail is producing yet. Hmm, seems a little brittle.

Thirdly, let's imagine (as we stand in front of our money trees pondering) that government and big (or small for that matter) business are only in it to help people out with no thought whatsoever to their bottom lines, how exactly would they make processed foods cheap, healthy, fresh, and accessible? Frozen dinners (the reference he uses) must be kept cold, must be preserved, and through all the processing, transporting, and refrigeration must be made to have some taste that the masses enjoy (pass the salt, baby; oh, and the high fructose corn syrup too).

Fourthly, to an extent processed food is simply any food that is processed. It's food that must be transported and/or preserved. And yet, there are varying degrees of processing and, in my opinion, varying degrees of good and bad within that processing process. There's tomato puree that contains only tomatoes that have been smashed and canned. And there are TV dinners, which contain--whether organic or not--plenty of preservatives, extra salts, and extra sugars. If you need a quick meal, you can grab a TV dinner, or you can boil some pasta and throw some tomato sauce and dried herbs on it (each of those foods is also processed, but less so). Now, with all this ranting, don't get me wrong: I believe that there's a time and a place for all these foods. When I was in college the same 5 foods over and over again (spaghetti, burritos, baked potatoes, PBJ's, and oatmeal) pretty much every day of my college life. I'm not sure it was the best food decision, but I was very very busy and fairly poor and it could have been much worse. And of course, there are even times for minute microwaved meals--times when they'll save you money because they're cheaper than going out. Times when they'll save you sanity. Just because that's life. Or times when you haven't quite made it to the all-foods-all-from-scratch kind of thing that is totally hip these days, but is not necessarily completely sustainable for normal folks. Again, these are all choices we must make. Or perhaps I should say, these are choices we are privileged to make. Make them well my friends. And don't expect the government or food industry to come up with something better.

 And, finally, it doesn't hurt to have a few from scratch (or pretty near) meals up your sleeve that you can pull out on those nights. Last time I was in Walmart I took a gander at the frozen dinners section. The hot pockets only take a minute to heat up; I can't compete with that (but, like, seriously, so gross). Several of the dinners took only about 5 minutes to make, although they were the individual TV dinners, so if you've got a family of 6 to heat up, you're looking at a good 15 minutes should you have the good fortune of being able to cram 3 in at a time. The family sized frozen dinners all took at least 12-15 minutes and sometimes nearly 30 minutes to make. In that case, you might as well pull out a couple of your own quick meals (unless you're just exhausted; in which case, I get it. I do).

So maybe you can't be a foodie or a gourmet in 15 minutes or less. But you can turn out some pretty decent meals. Here are a few ideas for super fast dinners (though in fact, nearly every meal on this site can be made in less than 30 minutes--I've got 4 kids; they hang upon my ankles; they whine).

1. Browned Butter Tilapia: 10 minutes

2. Skillet Lasagna: 25-30 minutes, but less than 10 are active with you doing something.

3. Blender Waffles (or pancakes or French toast or muffins or scrambled eggs): 20 minutes

4. Broccoli Alfredo: 15 minutes

5. Any meal comprised of leftovers be it soup, casserole, fried rice, jazzed up salad, sandwiches, or anything in a burrito.

P.S. In a completely narcissistic and also lazy way, I've linked to all my own recipes; there are plenty of others around, and decent quick cookbooks too. I've got The Betty Crocker Quick and Easy Cookbook and like it fairly well.

P.P.S. As a disclaimer regarding the original rant: I haven't read any other posts/articles by Wells and therefore recognize that it is possible that I am not giving the man a 100% fair shake.

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