How do you find the balance between healthy and convenient meals?

I was watching “Recipe Rehab” this morning, the cooking show where chefs take a family’s favorite dish and rehab it to make it healthier. Two chefs come up with recipes, and then the family makes both, deciding which tastes better, is easier to make, and is healtheir (determined by Everyday Health). One chef is crowned the winner.

The new recipes usually include ingredients the families don’t usually cook with or steps that they don’t normally have to take.  It’s always fun to watch families learn how just a little extra work can radically transform their diet and their health. Instead of using a jar of pasta sauce in a dish, for example, the chefs may have the family make a skillet sauce with tomatoes and onions and garlic; the family is usually astounded at how easy it was to make from scratch.

Today the recipe was for homemade brownies. The family’s original recipe had a lot of cholesteral and fat, so the chefs created new recipes that drastically cut the sodium and fat and brought the cholesteral to zero. One recipe was done all in one bowl, with two added steps to make a sauce and then broil bananas. The other recipe used three bowls to make the brownies (one for wet ingredients, one for dry and one to melt the chocolate in the microwave); there was also the added step to puree dates, an new ingredient for the family. There was an additional step to make a sauce.

The family thought both recipes tasted very good but didn’t really love either sauce.  But what I found interesting was that they really made a point of deducting points for the lack of ease of preparation. Yes, pureeing dates is definitely extra work. But having to use three bowls? Putting some bananas under a broiler?

When did it become such a big deal to dirty dishes in the kitchen? I wonder … maybe when convenience foods took over the grocery?

We’ve become accustomed to fast, cheap and easy meals, and when we’re forced to cook slowly and with a little more steps it feels not just inconvenient, it’s incredibly inconvenient. That’s not a criticism of the family on today’s show. I don’t think they’re thoughts are unusual at all. Packaged cake and brownie mixes, packaged side dishes, premade meals, etc. do make life easier for a busy family. But do we really understand that trade off in health? Higher fat, cholesteral and sodium? More artifical ingredients and preservatives?

Darling husband and I don’t share views on convenience foods vs. natural foods (hence the frozen pepperoni pizza in the freezer). He appreciates the extra time I put into make fresh cream puffs or cookies. But if I make brownies from a box, he’s fine with that as well – and wouldn’t care if there were BHT for preservatives or artificial color and flavors. I prefer a few extra steps to offer a healthier meal. I read labels and, as much as I can, avoid packaged foods, soda, etc.

Of course, I can be a little pickier because I don’t have a family to run to ballet lessons and soccer practice. It’s just me and darling husband and the critters. I have time to make cream puffs and cookies from scratch. (I’m actually a pretty mediocre cook but I do love to bake.) If I have to take time to make it from scratch, I usually eat something less often (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

I know this actually doesn’t have anything to do with animals, but I’m really interested in the bigger picture of eating healthy, organic food, eating less meat, etc. Convenience food is just one part of that.

So I’m curious about the busy modern family: where do you find balance between eating healthy and eating conveniently? How much extra work would you be willing to put into making a meal if you knew the health benefits would be measurable?

(You can see how the chefs rehabbed the brownie recipe here. I think you need to see the episode to actually watch the family prepare the recipes and then rate them.)

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