Taking back family dinner: A healthy, affordable and convenient escape from processed food
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.
“After a while, some things, you just — boom, boom, boom — know how it goes together. I don’t think you have to have the kitchen’s equivalent of a green thumb to do this. You just need to pick out a recipe online and start.”
Appliances like breadmakers, crockpots and rice cookers also make it easier to prepare healthy homemade meals, she said. “People somehow think I’m an amazing cook. Really, I’m not an amazing cook. I really think anyone can do it.”
Breaking bread, not the bank
Cost is the most common complaint about eating healthily — specifically, the high cost of fruits and vegetables — according to Andrea Carlson, a food economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, this perception — and the research that fuels it — is flawed, she said, because it focuses on “price per calorie” when a better metric would “price per serving.”
“Consumers are more interested in feeling full than getting the right amount of calories,” Carlson said. “Calories are a poor measure of satiety (or feeling full). With fruits and vegetables, you’re going to feel full before you eat too many calories.”
Highly processed foods often contain excessive amounts of fat or sugar or both, thus making them both calorically dense and cheap per calorie. The result is that people eat — and often spend — more before feeling full.
“These foods encourage people to eat more calories. ‘You can’t eat just one,’ ” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. “And more calories mean it’s harder to maintain a healthy weight and not gain.”
Melanie Warner, who covered the food industry as a reporter for the New York Times, illustrated the cost-effectiveness of healthy foods with an example.
“Take a banana,” she said. “You can buy one for 10 to 25 cents. Then look at a bag of chips — a serving size might be 50 cents to a dollar. You’re probably going to get more calories from a serving of chips, but on a cost basis the banana is going to fill you up more.”
Carlson said that the most popular fruits and vegetables also happen to be the cheapest: apples, oranges, bananas; in-season peaches, pears and plums; potatoes, romaine lettuce, broccoli. Mixing canned or frozen produce into one’s diet can further lower the cost.
The point, however, is not to narrow the slice of one’s food budget dedicated to fruits and vegetables, Carlson said. “That’s the most important part of the diet, and that should be a big chunk of spending.”
In fact, that category should account for 41 percent of household food spending, per USDA guidelines, she said. Currently, it comprises just 26 percent, on average.
Two areas where consumers could stand to trim expenses, Carlson said, are proteins and fats/sweets. Americans spend nearly three times more on fats and sweets than the recommended amount — 16 percent vs. the recommended 6 percent of the average household food budget.
Proteins comprise one-third compared to a goal of about one-fifth. Eating more plant-based proteins, such as legumes, can help reduce these expenses.
Blomgren said she plans two meatless meals a week, which saves money and allows her to buy a smattering of higher quality ingredients. To further conserve, she purchases flour and other non-perishable staples in bulk and hunts for sales.
“If you’re smart about it, it doesn’t cost more,” she said.
In fact, healthy meals can cost less than half as much as fast food. According to a study published in Family Medicine in 2010, a diet based primarily on bulk, generic, canned and frozen foods runs about $7.48 per day vs. $15.30 for fast food.
Long before it was fashionable to read food labels, Warner’s mom was clogging up grocery store aisles, squinting at jars and boxes in search of food dyes, chemical preservatives and added sugar.
“She refused to buy any food that was, in her words, ‘gooped up,’ ” Warner said. “It was, of course, incredibly annoying to my brother and I growing up.”
Over time, however, Warner internalized her mother’s perspective, and what then seemed irritating now looks smart.
Today, at age 83, her mom is in “incredible health,” doesn’t take any medications and doesn’t have any illnesses or chronic conditions.
"Some winters she goes through without getting even a cold," Warner said. "I attribute that to her approach to food and her common sense about food."
When asked for advice for parents today, Warner stressed the importance of teaching kids while they’re young, just as her mom did.
“It can become a slippery slope with food,” she said. “Don’t start with white bread and white pasta and then later try to get them to eat the whole wheat version.”
Dr. Mark Stephens, who practices family medicine in Maryland, said the principle applies to juices and fruit. He also said that parents often give up too easily.
“Parents say to me, ‘Johnny or Sally doesn’t like tomatoes.’ How do you know? ‘Well, I gave it to him twice and he made a face and just couldn’t stand it.’ ”
Stephens, who is also a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said it’s well established that with young kids particularly, parents have to present a food at least seven to 10 times before accurately assessing whether the child likes it.
Another tip, he said, is to slow down and enjoy both the food and the social context of the meal.
“The fellowship of the table is an important thing,” he said. “I would argue that, historically, the kitchen or table is the epicenter of social life within a family or community.”
In his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” food activist Michael Pollan argues that “cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers to producers,” thus yielding “deep and unexpected satisfactions.”
Blomgren knows this better than most. “They love being in the kitchen,” she said of her five children, who range in age from 3 to 12. “It’s kind our thing we do as a family. The mental hurdle of starting is bigger than the actual hurdle is. I think it’s something more people should take a crack at.”
David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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