Americans rely on cooking shortcuts

Families spend a surprising amount of time cooking meals at home, but rely heavily on packaged food to make the assist.

American families cook at home surprisingly often, but they cut corners by using packaged foods, pre-made sauces and food "kits" (Think Hamburger Helper or Pasta Roni), according to a study released this week. Despite warnings of the United States becoming a country of families that rely on fast-food chains for sustenance, an archaeology study of 32 two-income, working families in Los Angeles showed 70 percent of weeknight dinners were home-cooked.

For the study, UCLA's Margaret Beck watched videotapes of families and recorded how much time they spent preparing the meals they ate at home. For a meal to count as completely home-cooked, it had to be made from scratch and only consist of fresh foods. That means it could not include things like frozen entrees, canned or frozen vegetables, specialty breads (ready-to-eat, partially baked or from mix), canned soup, pre-made pasta sauce, hot dogs or bagged salads.

Interestingly, those short cuts didn't save home chefs any significant time. Families who relied heavily on the so-called convenience foods saved, on average, 10 minutes over those who made meals from scratch, the study reported. Beck theorized that people who used convenience foods would simply add to the complexity of the overall meal, perhaps putting more items on the table, but not saving any time in the end.

On the one hand, it sounds like good news that people are cooking for themselves. On the other hand, is dumping water and a noodle box into a pot really that much healthier? To me, it shows all the more reason to keep the kitchen stocked with good-quality gadgets and to work on techniques that might speed up the process of preparing a meal from scratch.

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About the author

Jennifer Guevin is managing editor at CNET, overseeing the ever-helpful How To section, special packages, and front-page programming. As a writer, she gravitates toward science, quirky geek culture stories, robots, and food. In real life, she mostly just gravitates toward food.

 

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