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Convenience food doesn’t always save time

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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.

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  • Lisa
    August 9, 2007

    Since we moved to Poland, where there are very few “convenience foods” I have really learned to cook with real ingredients. Much more delicious and nutritious I can make everything pretty fast. LOVE your site as I’m a major baker and most of your recipes have ingredients that are readily available in Poland! Thanks a lot!

  • rachelle
    August 9, 2007

    i find that when i cook from scratch, and make a big portion, then i call those leftovers my “convenience foods”. i also consider convenience foods those that i can pop in the oven and forget about for awhile while i get other things done. i bake bread, because it does not take all that much active time.

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