Taking back family dinner: A healthy, affordable and convenient escape from processed food

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 3:40 p.m. MDT

Zane Blomgren of Charlotte, N.C., fixes dinner with two of his children. Blomgren and his wife, Kim, say preparing meals helps their children improve their social, math and science skills.

Kim Blomgren

It started when Kim Blomgren and her husband, Zane, found themselves with 40 pounds of chicken breast on their hands, the result of an impulse discount buy.

“Heavens, what are we going to do with this?” Blomgren thought.

After a brainstorming session, the couple engaged in the production of chicken enchiladas on a scale they’d never before imagined.

“That was a turning point,” Blomgren said. “We realized it’s not that hard to make a bunch of enchiladas, instead of one dinner’s worth, and put them in the freezer for later.”

From there, the Blomgrens and their five kids gradually tackled one homemade meal after another. Soon their old habit of eating out or picking up convenience meals on the way home from work was a thing of the past, as was Blomgren’s worry about whether the food was hurting as much as it was helping.

“Maybe I’ve watched too many documentaries,” she said. “But you hear about all of the hormones and preservatives that go into the food. (Now) I don’t have to worry about, ‘Is this good for them?’ ”

Undoubtedly, homemade meals can provide greater control over ingredients — an important consideration given that one-third of U.S. children are obese or at risk of obesity.

But the question inevitably arises, “What about the costs, both in time and money?”

Isn’t it more expensive and inconvenient to eat healthily?

Captives of convenience

Actually, when viewed in the long-run, it's highly processed foods that appear decidedly inconvenient. Chronic disease affects nearly half of all Americans and causes 70 percent of deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Such illnesses are generally incurable, expensive and debilitating. They’re also, in many cases, avoidable.

“Heart disease, asthma, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, lung conditions — most of these have a big diet component to them,” said Melanie Warner, author of “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.”

“When problems are diet or lifestyle related — that’s what scientists mean when they say preventable,” she continued.

Warner isn’t calling for the regulation of the food industry or an abolishment of processed foods. "Processed" refers more to a continuum than to a category, ranging from minimally modified foods like baby carrots and canned beans to highly processed products such as Twinkies and Slim Jims.

What Warner would like to see is a swing of the pendulum. Currently, 70 percent of Americans’ calories come from highly processed foods. “A better ratio may be 30 percent,” she said.

Even in the short-term, so-called convenience meals — including canned soups, frozen entrees and “food kits” like Hamburger Helper — don’t always save much time compared to fresh, homemade meals.

A study conducted by UCLA researchers from 2002 to 2005 indicated that “heavy reliance on commercial food” reduced hands-on cooking time by only about 10 minutes, and yielded no significant savings in total meal preparation time.

Kim Blomgren uses parts of her weekends to prepare meals in bulk and test out new recipes because trial runs inevitably take longer. It's an investment that pays off, she said.

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