March 26, 2006

Home-cooked meals ... kind of

The NYT talks about 'meal preparation centers', where customers assemble precut and semi-cooked ingredients into what are, essentially, frozen dinners, then take them home to heat and serve to their families over the following week. Customers are, apparently, encouraged to adjust the meals to their families' needs -- less salt, or vegetarian options, etc. But the ingredients are almost the same as you'll find in college dining halls, fast food, or frozen dinners -- even supplied by the same companies -- making the nutritional and culinary value of these meals just as questionable.

So what value do these meals have? The cookbook author the writers talked to has one theory: "People basically don't want to cook but they don't want to be told they are not cooking". This certainly isn't a charitable hypothesis; is there a more appealing alternative? Nutrition has already been ruled out. The article seems to suggest two other possibilities: these meals offer more variety than a fast-food rotation without taking much time, and the centers themselves have a relaxing, communal environment.

The problem with the first possibility is that it doesn't take much cooking skill to be able to prepare a healthy meal in less than an hour; Rachael Ray has built an entire career at Food Network on '30 Minute Meals', and I have at least one other cookbook that delivers on a promise of fast, easy, healthy food. Yes, it will probably be a little more involved, and take a little more time, but will definitely be less expensive and the meals will be significantly better.

The additional time commitment isn't even all that significant, so long as the entire family gets involved -- now that my step-sisters are 13 and 17, for example, no-one should be fixing dinner more than twice during the weeks they're staying with my dad and his wife. Not to mention informal dinner parties and potlucks, which make dinner into a far more communal affair than trading jokes with the overworked mom at the next assembly station.

Beyond creating the illusion of cooking for people who think actually learning to cook is too hard or too time-consuming, I don't see anything good about these centers that a decent kitchen and cookbook can't do better.


MosBen said...

I thought the article was a little light about details on the nutritional aspects of meals. I certainly don't get the impression that it's as bad as fast food. It merely seemed like this was a fast, easy, and fun way to prepare meals for your family without all the prep time that goes into cooking. Personally, I don't particularly care prep work. It's the slowest and least fun part of the process of cooking. I don't see anything wrong with wanting to remove that part of the process.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, most grocery stores now stock precut veggies and the like. It's a matter of going and buying them and taking them home. And if cooking during the week is a problem, why not spend the time it takes to get to the center and make the food doing it at home after a trip to the grocery? Then maybe you can get the help of the family that you're "cooking" for. (I suppose I'm not entirely convinced that the problem isn't so much that we eat out too much or that people are too busy to cook, as that people don't want to take time away from the important stuff, like a job, for the less important things like friends and family.)
And it's not something I usually look at, but the article seemed really focused on women who have to cook for their families instead of families who lack the time to cook.

Or maybe the writer at the Times has discovered that men and children are incapable of cooking. :P