Science + Technology

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

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

"I really expected to see takeout used more often," saidMargaret 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 thepeer-reviewed British Food Journal. "People actually spend quite a fair amountof time cooking, but they're incorporating a lot of so-called conveniencefoods. Some people are just grabbing food kits off store shelves and addingwater."

The trusty hamburger augmentation product from Betty Crockerfigured prominently in the meals of these working families, as did packagedconvenience foods from big-box discount store Costco and SouthernCalifornia-based specialty grocery chain Trader Joe's.

In connection with a larger study, CELF researchers videotapedfour 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 cookingroutines among traditional cultures today for clues to deciphering culinaryremains found in Native American crockery and other artifacts, poured over thefootage. She noted whether families ate fast food, went to a restaurant, ate atsomeone else's house or cooked at home. When families ate at home, shetabulated how many dishes were takeout, how many were convenience foods and howmany were made from scratch. She also tracked the number of dishes in eachmeal, the overall preparation time and the hands-on preparation time — timespent cutting, chopping, stirring, adding water, etc.

Of the 64 weeknight dinners Beck observed, 70 percent werecompletely home-cooked, meaning they were prepared at home, although notnecessarily from scratch. Despite recent alarm bells about the rise of fastfood and takeout — particularly the 2005 best-seller "Fast Food Nation" and the2004 documentary "Super Size Me" — less than 15 percent of families ate dinnersconsisting solely of takeout or fast foods; only 5 percent combined takeoutfood with food prepared at home.

With almost all of the home-cooked meals, families servedsome sort of packaged convenience food. Frozen entres (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 notconsider dried pasta and tortillas to be convenience foods, but she did countbagged salads and hot dogs.

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

In fact, families saved only when it came to the amount ofhands-on time spent preparing dishes — and the savings were relatively modest.Families with an extensive reliance on convenience foods saved an average of 10to 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 whenthey use so-called convenience foods," Beck said. "Families seem to spend acertain 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 reasonno time overall was saved with time-saving foods, but Beck thinks the pamperedpalettes of today's kids may play a role.

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

But the demands of serving as short-order cook onlypartially explained heavy reliance on commercially prepared foods. Othercontributors seemed to include taste buds increasingly shaped by the foodindustry and dwindling reliance on grocery lists, Beck said.

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

Not surprisingly, mothers tended to wear the apron. Ofobserved dinners, 80 percent were made by mothers, and this was the case evenwhen fathers were already home from work and theoretically available to pitchin.

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

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

"It makes me sad when I think of people not having thisexperience," Ochs said. "You lose familyand regional traditions."

Interestingly, families worked from cookbooks on only threeoccasions, and they never referred to food articles in newspapers or magazinewhile cooking.

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

-UCLA-

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