December 08, 2009

The Prepared Foods Conundrum

I'm pretty sure that the prepared gourmet food trend is evil, and I want to tell you why.

To be clear, I'm not talking about those creepy frozen dinners or the scary roast chickens that look like they crawled out of a dumpster; I'm talking about the fragrant, impressive prepared food sections of grocery stores that feature curried lentils, barbecued chicken and pork (at the Whole Foods in Richmond), and all kinds of creative salads.

First, let's look at some of the reasons why people are turning to gourmet prepared foods:

Convenience: A full meal, ready to go, at half the price of a restaurant. Just dump it on a plate, heat it up, and stuff your face.

Less Guilt: Instead of bringing home a bucket of fried chicken on the nights they don't feel like cooking, people can now bring home something healthier.

The Single Syndrome: Especially among women, the reality of cooking for one can be both painful and embarrassing. Instead of asking the butcher for one chicken breast, it's easier to avoid reality by crafting a meal for one from the gourmet food bar.

Novelty: I'll admit it; sometimes it's nice to take a break from the typical type of food I make and have affordable sushi or saffron lentils and quinoa to go.

So yes, these prepared foods are convenient, (somewhat) guilt-free, single-friendly, and new and shiny. But it seems like the only difference between going to Whole Foods' prepared food section and going to McDonald's is a moderate health improvement, and the fact that you're not likely to be tricked into eating deep-fried cat meat at Whole Foods. At the end of the day, you're still avoiding the actual act of cooking.

This brings me to my argument that Americans need to re-prioritize what they spend their time doing. Instead of bringing home some prepared food from the local grocery store so that you can get an extra half hour in front of the idiot box, why not get your family to gather in the kitchen while you cook a meal, or, heaven forbid, you all pitch in to make dinner? I know it's hard to find the time and energy to cook, and I, too, have felt the pull of the Whole Foods sushi bar. But what are we going to do, buy our dinners pre-made every night for the rest of our lives?

The sign pictured above (which hangs in a store in West Hartford, CT) pretty much sums up why the whole trend is evil. It actually says "don't cook"! Not "take a night off," or "try something new," but "do not cook"! As though cooking were evil.

The last thing our time-starved country needs is another way to cut corners so that we can go through life without ever having to do anything for ourselves. Why cook when you can eat prepared foods? Why do your laundry when you can take it to the Dry-cleaners? Why read a newspaper when you can set up web alerts to find only the articles whose topics you've predetermined are interesting?

The solution to our national kitchen deficiency will take time, creative strategy, and patience. While it's great that people now have a healthy alternative to fast food joints, gourmet food bars are not the solution; they're just a fancy addition to the problem.

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