Dinner.Among all the responses to the new data showing we’re getting sicker and fatter, I was most struck by Kerry Trueman’s comment at Civil Eats that what we are really suffering from is “kitchen illiteracy.” Now, that’s the kind of insight which seems easy to dismiss. We all know it’s not about a lack of interest or knowledge — it’s about a lack of time, right? As I once asked, how can you fix the food system when you have to fight convenience? Working parents are forced by circumstances outside their control to buy processed food because cooking real food takes too long. These folks don’t have time to boil pasta much less prepare a healthy meal.

Well, what if I told you that assertion might be wrong? What if “convenience foods” aren’t actually all that — for lack of a better word — convenient? A few years ago, a UCLA researcher performed an observational study of a group of LA families to see how they handled mealtimes.  Here’s what she found:

Surprisingly, dinner didn’t get on the table any faster in homes that favored convenience foods. Meals took an average of 52 minutes in total time to prepare. The difference in the total amount of time expended was not statistically significant between meals involving extensive use of convenience foods (with such foods making up 50 percent or more of a meal) and more limited use of such items (between 20 and 50 percent). 

In fact, families saved only when it came to the amount of hands-on time spent preparing dishes — and the savings were relatively modest. Families with an extensive reliance on convenience foods saved an average of 10 to 12 minutes over families with more limited reliance on such products. Home-cooked meals required an average of 34 minutes of hands-on time.

Now, this was a small study and its sample wasn’t particularly representative. It looked at 32 college-educated, predominantly white median-income LA familes — at a minimum, they had to be willing to let researchers into their homes (in some cases with a videocamera). Plus, only about 10% of meals studied involved single-serving (i.e. meal-in-a-box) processed food. However, in many cases half or more of a meal used convenience foods and Hamburger Helper-style “extenders” were common. Still, you can’t generalize from this study as to how different income groups or ethnicities approach dinner.

But what the study did show was that using processed food saved all of 10 minutes in the kitchen.  The study did note that sometimes those extra minutes make all the difference. As a participant in an earlier cooking study said: “When we’re exhausted, if the 20 minutes we bargained to spend cooking starts turning into 35, that’s enough to finish us off.”  As a result, I’m not going to suggest that everyone just suck it up and spend another 10 minutes in the kitchen. Also, one of the core conclusions of the study involved the fact that the act of cooking was not fundamentally where people were looking to save time:

This study illustrates, through observation of real families in real-life situations, that raw ingredients need not substantially increase preparation times. The menus and shopping strategies are likely to change with an increased emphasis on raw ingredients. Not all families (or individuals within families) want to prepare or eat such meals; they prefer the more complex menus that are possible, with the same time expenditure, using commercial foods. Others may find that fresh raw ingredients require more shopping trips or more planning than they can invest, or they may lack the cooking skills to prepare them.

That, my friends, is the very definition of “kitchen illiteracy.”

I draw a couple conclusions of my own from all this.  First of all, education will indeed be an important part of any food reform. Increasing people’s comfort and familiarity with food, bizarre as it is to consider, is absolutely necessary.  But there’s also this fact: if you offer consumers real, fresh food products which save 10 minutes in the kitchen, you just might change people’s cooking habits for the better. And that’s not just wishful thinking on my part — the USDA thinks so, too!

One of the more positive studies mentioned in the USDA’s recent report on food deserts involved just this kind of product. And it got very promising results:

One intervention stocked prepared packs of fruits and vegetables (washed, cut, and bagged) at two tiendas (small stores) that served primarily Latino customers in North Carolina.  Fruit and vegetable intake for customers at these two tiendas was compared with the fruit and vegetable intake of customers at two control group tiendas that did not offer the fruit and vegetable packs (Ayala et al., 2009).  The study found that customers who shopped at stores where the packs were sold increased fruit and vegetable intake by one full serving. Customers who shopped in the two control tiendas exhibited no change in consumption.

And make no mistake: Increasing fruit and veg intake by a full serving is HUGE. Very few interventions that have been studied/modeled improve intake that significantly. For example, a USDA study that looked at the effect on purchases of a 10% subsidy on the price of vegetables determined it would increase fruit and veg consumtion by 5%. The NC study metioned above increased it by 40%. Not that this kind of product is revolutionary. These sorts of things are very common in Europe — a classic example being ready-to-cook “soup mixes,” i.e. bags of trimmed, washed veggies and herbs.

Of course, these kinds of value-added products don’t require an enormous factory, a massive distribution system or a vast sea of corn and soy to engineer. So, it’s understandable that Big Food hasn’t done much with them. But still, someone should. And it might make more than a small dent in our societal eating disorder of too much of the wrong kinds of food.

h/t Janet Majure at Foodperson.com