Wednesday, 28 January 2009

It's all in our heads...

The adjective convenient, unlike say, horrible or wonderful, generally has a neutral connotation. When I think of things that are convenient, I think of things that are easy to do, that require little stress or effort or energetic output on my part.

Much of our society seems to be structured around making things easier and more convenient. Electricity, cars, indoor plumbing, grocery stores: all designed so it is easier and more convenient to live our lives. True, some things that are designed to make life more convenient have the opposite effect (cell phone customer representatives spring to mind).

Now, I'm certainly not going to bash hot running water or functioning refrigerators. I may believe in Paleo eating, but I'm not going to throw on a loincloth, grab a spear, and take up residence in a field--I don't even like camping with a tent and sleeping bags. And I am certainly not against making food convenient, especially given my love of prechopped frozen spinach :)

What I do have a problem with is the way this mentality of convenience is applied to food, particularly in this country. Convenience seems to mean 'as quickly as possible with no regard to the healthfulness of what is being provided.' I hate the association of food with convenience with a complete disregard for taste beyond an assault of salt, sugar, or both.

I also don't like that convenient means getting your money's worth in giant portions so that manufacturers have to spin their nutrition labels and break down a massive packaged chocolate chip cookie into two servings (because most people stop at half the cookie, right?) to obscure the fact that there are 600 calories in that beast. I hate that convenience food must be food so crammed full of preservatives that cockroaches will be able to munch on the leftovers after a nuclear holocaust. And it's this mentality of food merely being a commodity to be valued at the lowest common denominators of healthfulness and taste that is spreading (check out Living Healthy in the Real World, where there is a fabulous review of a book on this very topic) throughout the globe.

When I was living in France, it was gauche to walk and eat at the same time (I know because I was the recipient of a lot of staring). One did not snack. One took time to prepare proper meals, sit down, and eat them, even if preparing the proper meal was taking the frozen cassoulet you had purchased at Monoprix and heating it in the oven. Taste was important. Portion size was moderated as much by cultural norms as a sense of satiation. It was simply not 'comme il faut' to eat until you groan. I'm not going to pretend the French don't like convenience foods too--but their convenience foods tend to be yogurts and frozen versions of classic dishes and individual portions of grated carrot salad, rather than bags of potato chips. And their portion sizes are still considerably smaller.

Convenience food doesn't have to be the way many American food manufacturers make it now. What if I told you of this fabulous new low calorie product that was individually packaged with organic materials, came chock full of vitamins and nutrients and fiber, and was available NOW in your grocery store?

Interested yet? I'm talking about oranges (and many other fruits). It's all about the spin, baby. In other words, the issue is not that healthy, convenient food is not available to us--it's that we don't view healthy food as convenient. And when someone is tired and stressed and feeling economically stretched, even the perception that healthy=extra effort may be enough to turn people towards sub optimal choices. American food manufacturers help create and sustain that perception because it is good for their bottom line, at the expense of our waistlines.

I feel like we have made great strides in the recent past--how else can we explain the popularity of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I worry that the economic downturn will lead, however, to a backward slide (note the fact the Spam and McDonalds are resurgent). I don't know how we decouple convenience and nutritional bankruptcy on a large scale, but there must be a way. I think it will have to be a combination of top down (getting our government to be more proactive) and bottom up (actually getting that frozen spinach in peoples' grocery carts). But like I said, I believe the issue is not that we don't have the resources, it's that we lack the mindset.


TrailGrrl said...

Spam isn't even cheap! I have no idea why people buy it when the economy is bad. Now for emergencies like when the power is out for days or a week, ok I can see the appeal. But not as a "frugal" food.

Fresh food is actually some of the cheapest stuff you can buy, I don't care how much they tout "rice and beans" or "mac and cheese" or "ramen noodles." You can get a 10lb bag of potatoes really cheap.

Keep on blogging!


Cave Cooking said...

TrailGrrl-I am TOTALLY with you. Cabbage is 99 cents a pound and can feed you for a good long while. Compare that to the price per pound cornflakes and you tell me who's getting the better bargain!

Anonymous said...


Convenience can totally be used to our healthful advantage- like with fresh fruit. But we just have this awful way of going for crappy convenient food. The French have got it right.

(Thanks for the shout out:) )

- Sagan