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Unburdening: 30 Minute Madness

October 2, 2014

Last week we took a break from the “Unburdening” project. Interestingly, it was last week that Vox ran a story on this same piece of research and interviewed one of the sociologists at North Carolina State University.

Reading it rekindled my desire to try and solve some of the problems that American families are having trying to put healthier food on the table. We’ve already smashed the idol of the ideal meal, tackled the strawman of lean meat, and exposed the fallacy of fresh veggies.

Today it’s time to address a big one, time itself. I hope you’re ready. Let’s start with the Mark Bittman quotation mentioned in the Vox interview.

He said, “Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again.”

Let’s remove roasting a chicken and tossing a salad from the equation for the price and perishability concerns we mentioned earlier, but also for the time they take to prepare. Everyone should be able to make a delicious grilled cheese sandwich and scramble a scrumptious egg.

And I bet there are many people who think they can.

For the sandwich, the secret is using plenty of butter, and toasting at a low heat for at least ten minutes. Large curd scrambled eggs can be made super fast, but they too require more butter than one might expect, plenty of salt, and a careful eye to make sure they don’t dry out.

Both of these preparations are a bit more work, but they elevate these ordinary foods into something to be savored.

After all, that is one of the points about these home cooked meals. The idea is to sit around the table and be mindful of our food. Granted, it’s easier said than done, especially with the presence of kids. And it’s especially hard for lower income families.

Some of my favorite foods are the foods of the poor from around the world: country French, rustic Italian, Indian bean dishes, and noodle soups. It’s easy to forget where these came from as now you’ll pay a pretty penny for these dishes at a restaurant.

One of the things that they all have in common are time-intensive preparations. Not all that long ago those who struggled financially in America, may not have had money, but they still had time. Now with single parent households and families with two working parents, many have neither time nor money. That’s a brutal combination.

This goes a long way to explains the appeal of these so-called thirty minute meals.

But for the most part they are a suckers gambit for a variety of reasons. Either these meals are simply an assemblage of heavily processed foods in some clever configuration, or they require a level of skill and finesse that takes time to build (and is near impossible to execute if referencing the recipe is needed during cooking). The thirty minute time window almost never includes preparation or clean up time. And it takes a fair bit of practice before one has mastered the art of cooking clean.

Invariably this leads to frustration. However, a good part of the problem is about expectations.

Here’s an important tip to remember and hold close to your heart when you feel that cooking is a burden. Cooking a recipe gets faster and easier the more times you make it. It does. When you can stop looking at the recipe, and your hands simply know what to do, your time will be cut dramatically. Plus you’ll develop tricks over time for shaving minutes off the preparation and clean up.

Start with one recipe that your family likes, and from there begin to build a repertoire. I know that’s a fancy word. But healthy home cooking shouldn’t be reserved for those of means.

Granted, I have no solutions for those who can’t afford cookware or only have access to a microwave. I can’t do much for those families who have no clean or safe place to prepare food.

But I can tell everyone else to buy corn tortillas that are made of only three ingredients: Corn, water and lime. Because you shred a little cheddar cheese on those babies, crisp it in a pan, and serve with some whole organic carrots (not those slimy and expensive baby ones), you’ve got a quick, cheap, and tasty meal that almost any kid will love.

Which doesn’t mean you have to pander to the kids. Getting children to eat was a common problem across all income segments in the study, but for different reasons. I’ve got some ideas for avoiding food fights too. We’ll cover those next time.

Until then, keep on cooking. And please remember, if you’re having any problems, just let me know. I’m here to help.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 2, 2014 11:28 am

    For some reason, I always consider grilled cheese a luxury food. I think it has something to do with the calories (and butter) that makes me feel like its a guilty pleasure. Or maybe its like eating cereal for dinner, as an adult I feel like I should know better but allowing yourself to indulge makes them seem like treats. I made an excellent grilled cheese two nights ago for dinner, after coming home late from an event. Rye bread and cheddar, and it confirmed that grilled cheese can be a decadent, quick dinner.

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