The lure of convenience foods – frozen lasagna, bagged salad, heat-and-serve desserts – is the idea that they are big time savers. You can get a lot out of them with minimal effort, while making lasagna and pie from scratch could take quite some time. But there is a catch to the time-saving abilities of convenience food and that is the fact that people don’t use convenience food to replace the from-scratch version of a dish. Instead, it is used in place of something that would take equally little effort and, in light of this fact, turns out not to be a time-saver after all.
Researchers at UCLA observed the cooking habits of 32 middle class families with two working parents, comparing the time they spend preparing non-instant dinners to convenience dinners. From-scratch dinners took 26-93 minutes and were usually simple: stir fries, sandwiches, etc. Convenience dinners took 25 to-73 minutes and were far more complex, often involving multiple courses: “microwave barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls and a cookies and ice cream dessert.” The instant chefs saved about 10 minutes of prep work (slicing and dicing), but there was no statistically significant difference in the overall time it took to get dinner on the table.
Some at-home chefs, and even some nutritionists, support using convenience foods in place of homemade dishes because they are perceived as time savers. Not only do they not save time, but people eat simpler, healthier meals when they cook themselves.