Working Families Rely Heavily on "Convenience" Foods for Dinner, But Save Little Time

August 7, 2007

Two-income families in Los Angeles don't live so much in a fast food nation as they do in a Hamburger Helper hamlet on the edge of a packaged lettuce greenbelt, according to the first academic study to track American families moment by moment as they make dinner.

"I really expected to see takeout used more often," said Margaret Beck, a researcher at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) and author of the study, which appears in the current issue of the peer-reviewed British Food Journal. "People actually spend quite a fair amount of time cooking, but they're incorporating a lot of so-called convenience foods. Some people are just grabbing food kits off store shelves and adding water."

The trusty hamburger augmentation product from Betty Crocker figured prominently in the meals of these working families, as did packaged convenience foods from big-box discount store Costco and Southern California-based specialty grocery chain Trader Joe's.

In connection with a larger study, CELF researchers videotaped four days in the home lives of 32 working families in Los Angeles, including their dinner routines, between early 2002 and 2005. Beck, an archaeologist who has studied cooking routines among traditional cultures today for clues to deciphering culinary remains found in Native American crockery and other artifacts, poured over the footage. She noted whether families ate fast food, went to a restaurant, ate at someone else's house or cooked at home. When families ate at home, she tabulated how many dishes were takeout, how many were convenience foods and how many were made from scratch. She also tracked the number of dishes in each meal, the overall preparation time and the hands-on preparation time — time spent cutting, chopping, stirring, adding water, etc.

Of the 64 weeknight dinners Beck observed, 70 percent were completely home-cooked, meaning they were prepared at home, although not necessarily from scratch. Despite recent alarm bells about the rise of fast food and takeout — particularly the 2005 best-seller "Fast Food Nation" and the 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" — less than 15 percent of families ate dinners consisting solely of takeout or fast foods; only 5 percent combined takeout food with food prepared at home.

With almost all of the home-cooked meals, families served some sort of packaged convenience food. Frozen entrées (such as stir-fry mixes, potstickers, chicken dishes and barbecued ribs) were the most popular products, followed by vegetables (canned or frozen), specialty breads (ready-to-eat, parbaked or from mix), canned soup and commercial pasta sauce. Beck did not consider dried pasta and tortillas to be convenience foods, but she did count bagged salads and hot dogs.

Surprisingly, dinner didn't get on the table any faster in homes that favored convenience foods. Meals took an average of 52 minutes in total time to prepare. The difference in the total amount of time expended was not statistically significant between meals involving extensive use of convenience foods (with such foods making up 50 percent or more of a meal) and more limited use of such items (between 20 and 50 percent).

In fact, families saved only when it came to the amount of hands-on time spent preparing dishes — and the savings were relatively modest. Families with an extensive reliance on convenience foods saved an average of 10 to 12 minutes over families with more limited reliance on such products. Home-cooked meals required an average of 34 minutes of hands-on time.

"People don't spend any less time overall on dinner when they use so-called convenience foods," Beck said. "Families seem to spend a certain amount of time cooking regardless. When commercial items are involved, they just ramp up how elaborate it gets."

Additional research is required to pinpoint the exact reason no time overall was saved with time-saving foods, but Beck thinks the pampered palettes of today's kids may play a role.

"Some people don't fight the fight of getting the kids to eat what's being served for dinner," she said. "The kids frequently got entirely separate entrees or separate items from the adults, so that adds to the overall complexity of the meal."

But the demands of serving as short-order cook only partially explained heavy reliance on commercially prepared foods. Other contributors seemed to include taste buds increasingly shaped by the food industry and dwindling reliance on grocery lists, Beck said.

"When you don't make a list, you don't know what ingredients may be called for," Beck said. "So you grab food kits off the shelf. Then you know you have everything you need."

Not surprisingly, mothers tended to wear the apron. Of observed dinners, 80 percent were made by mothers, and this was the case even when fathers were already home from work and theoretically available to pitch in.

"If you're a mom, expect to make all the dinners," said UCLA anthropologist Elinor Ochs, director of CELF. "A lot of the traditional gender roles are persisting."

To the distress of CELF researchers, children didn't help much either.

"It makes me sad when I think of people not having this experience," Ochs said. "You lose family and regional traditions."

Interestingly, families worked from cookbooks on only three occasions, and they never referred to food articles in newspapers or magazine while cooking.

"There was one woman relaxing and reading a food magazine, but this information didn't make it into the weekday dinner that night," Beck said. "Cooking from scratch is seen as a hobby. It has become this other realm of entertainment."

Source: UCLA

Explore further: It's poverty, not individual choice, that is driving extraordinary obesity levels

Related Stories

It's poverty, not individual choice, that is driving extraordinary obesity levels

February 20, 2018
The "obesity epidemic" deserves much more serious attention than it is getting. It is, after all, thought to be killing nearly 3m people a year worldwide. It is putting huge pressure on health services, yet the public policy ...

Study suggests possible link between highly processed foods and cancer

February 14, 2018
A study published by The BMJ today reports a possible association between intake of highly processed ("ultra-processed") food in the diet and cancer.

Home remedies: Lifestyle affects your heart health

February 19, 2018
Heart disease can be improved—or even prevented—by making certain lifestyle changes. The following changes can help anyone who wants to improve heart health:

Hip hop meets health in a campaign against type 2 diabetes

February 14, 2018
The Center for Vulnerable Populations (CVP), at UC San Francisco, and Youth Speaks, a San Francisco youth development and arts education organization, are releasing four new spoken word videos by young poets from across California ...

McDonald's moves cheeseburgers off Happy Meal menu

February 15, 2018
McDonald's is taking cheeseburgers and chocolate milk off its Happy Meal menu in an effort to cut down on the calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar that kids consume at its restaurants.

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Recommended for you

Best of Last Year—The top Medical Xpress articles of 2017

December 20, 2017
It was a good year for medical research as a team at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, found that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Any exercise helps, the team found, but dancing ...

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.