There was a question on a frugality/cooking blog, asking when convenience foods were worth the money.
And I've thought about this.
And thought some more.
Really, I'm struggling here.
Thinking hard. Got a headache.
Now, what constitutes as a convenience food is a sliding scale. There are some things which most everyone can agree are convenience foods, like frozen pizzas or Hot Pockets. Most people think of things that are easy to prepare and nutritionally bankrupt. But you could argue that canned vegetables, Wonderbread, and sausage fall in that category, too. After all, you can make all of those things yourself - can your own veggies, bake your own bread, grind your own sausage. I suppose any time the ingredients could possibly be more raw, then you are working with a convenience food. For instance, my sisters mill their own wheat. They must think I'm a sucker every time I buy a bag of flour. That's me, always taking the easy way out.
I find that the more I cook, the more raw my food starts out. I used to eat a lot of frozen pizza. Sometimes, on special occasions, I would splurge on a take-and-bake pizza, which are those doughy ones with big vegetable pieces that you find in the deli department. They actually have expiration dates. Somewhere along the line, I started making my own pizzas, and I haven't gone back. I could feel good about myself for that - I'm saving money and eating something much better for me. And yet, I'm putting prepackaged pepperoni on my homemade pizza. You know what? It's not even kept in the refrigerated section of the store. It's not much different from Vienna sausages.
So after the homemade pizza, I started cutting my own french fries from potatoes, then pie crusts, then it was hamburger and hot dog buns (and bread in general), and recently spaghetti sauce. Discovering that you can roll your own can be liberating, but also a little sad, because you can't go back. You are a changed person, and the person you used to be, who was happy buying Ragu, is dead and gone.
I miss that old me sometimes. My laziness kicks in, and I decide that I just want hot dogs and fries for dinner. Well, it's forty minutes bake time for the fries. Oh, and whoops, no buns, so that's an extra hour I have to factor in making the buns, and really they should go in the oven before the fries so the potatoes will be hot. True, it's only like fifteen minutes of actual work, the rest is baking or rising time. But it is delayed gratification, and I want it now. But then I think about driving to the store to pay money to get something that won't taste as good, and I get out the flour. It's the same with pie crusts. I hate rolling out pie crust. If Hell is tailored to each individual, then mine would be endlessly rolling out pie crusts. I keep waiting for the day when I will be good at it, when I won't want to cry in frustration as the darn thing rips again. And they sell these crusts in the dairy section that are all rolled up, ready to just unwrap into your pie plate and bake. But I can't buy them, because I know that mine tastes better. Perhaps it is the flavor of my tears.
Or maybe not, because I can't handle salt the way I used to; making my own food has ruined my taste it. You may not have noticed, but most processed foods contain a lot of salt. Check out a nutrition label here or there, or don't, if you don't want to know. When you make things from scratch, you don't add that salt. When you eat that same scratch food every day, your tolerance for salt goes down. Then you eat some canned soup, your tongue swells up and you die of thirst. This happened first with Josh, who told me to cut the salt in everything I made. I thought he was being a salt sissy. Then one day, I ate at someone's house, who served soup, and the salt was the only thing I could taste. Everyone else ate it up and thought it was awesome. I felt like I was tasting one of those brown salt licks we had in the goat pen at my parents' house (not that I ever, ever licked one of those as a child, no sir). I am not anti-salt. God bless salt, I say. There are times when a little salt makes a world of difference. But it's not all the time. Just think: if we had discovered that nutmeg, rather than salt, was a great preservative, then Hot Pockets would taste like pumpkin pie.
I am not immune to the lure of convenience. I, too, am lazy. I sit back and reflect on the good ole days, when I just unwrapped a pie crust, shoved it in the oven, and then went to play with my belly button for an hour. But these kinds of foods have their consequences, and it's in two areas that hit me really, really hard: cost and taste. They're expensive, and they don't taste as good. My mother trained me to always look for the cheaper option, and my tongue tells me that tastier is better. There's some sort of health aspect, I've heard, but to be honest, I don't care. Maybe I will someday, and I surely will use that as an argument when trying to convince someone that they should really try making their own soup rather than opening that there can. But truly, it's not something that would convince me. If convenience foods all tasted better and were cheaper than their homemade counterparts, then I'd ask you to please pass the french toast sticks.
There are ways to make inconvenient foods less so. That CraigsList freezer was one of the best things I've ever bought. If I wanted to make hot dogs for dinner tonight, I would have the rolls all ready, because I made a double batch last time. I'd even have homemade chili to go on top, frozen in one and a half cup servings (which is about right for a pack of 8 dogs). Or if I wanted the ease of a can of soup, I have five different varieties in freezer bags, ready to be unthawed. It's not that homemade food is really all that inconvenient, they just take a little more thinking ahead. It's easy for me to say that, of course, I don't have kids. Hopefully by the time I do, I'll have all this stuff down to a science. Or I'll just come back and delete this post after I'm done putting 30 boxes of Hot Pockets in the freezer.
I really and truly believe that the big selling point of convenience foods is intimidation. I think that if more people realized how easy it is to prepare food that tastes that much better, costs less, and is better for them, the Hot Pocket company would go out of business. People think it's hard to do it yourself. Sometimes, it is. There are some things that I will likely never make from scratch. I tried making pasta once and it was a fiasco. I've cooked dried beans rather than used cans, and I'm not sure it was worth it (planning on trying again, though). But some things should be made from actual ingredients: mashed potato flakes are a sacrilege. Homemade soup is only a crockpot, half a dozen canned goods, and eight hours away. You decide where your own line is.
I am advocating the middle path. Convenience foods are a good idea. Even a Hot Pocket every once in a while is not going to kill you. It will remind you why you don't eat them more often. And some things which could be called convenience foods are actually pretty good. They allow people without gardens to have vegetables out of season and people who want a sandwich to use mayonnaise without breaking out the blender or knowing what "emulsifying" means. But when you start sacrificing all the taste and nutrition for convenience, that's a problem. It defeats the purpose of food. Guys, food is awesome. It tastes really super good, and, get this, it keeps you alive. Josh said once that making food delicious was part of God's plan to give us free will. Animals eat because their most innate drive is to survive. Humans have higher thinking, which means we can just decide to starve ourselves (and we sometimes do). And I was just about to starve myself, but, hold on, is that pie?
So really, what I'm saying here is: Food good. Here's to food, both convenient and not.