In praise of prepared food
If you read food blogs or cookbooks or watch food-related television— and I do all these things pretty much all the time — you’ll see there’s a pretty much endless campaign against canned beans and frozen dinners and packaged broths and pre-cut vegetables and takeout. The argument, which is true so far as it goes, is that all these items are expensive, often unhealthy, replacements for things that are relatively easy to do on your own. Perhaps the most succinct summation of this worldview came at the end of this Michael Pollan article, when he quoted veteran food-marketer Harry Balzer saying, “Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
But people won’t cook it for themselves. They’re busy. They don’t like to cook. They don’t want to wait. In fact, even I won’t cook it for myself. Sure, it’s straightforward to make my own beans and freeze them. Sure, I know how much better it is when I make my own stock and use it. But in practice, I never do it. I’m happy enough reaching for a can. And I’m someone who loves to cook.
I thought of all this while reading Matthew Yglesias’s paean to Chipotle. As he notes, Chipotle has posted incredible growth numbers in recent years. The company’s stock is up by 500 percent over the last five years, and they opened 67 new stores in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone.
What’s interesting about Chipotle is that they’re doing all this while pioneering some very unusual practices for a national fast-food chain. Most of their meat is naturally raised in fairly humane conditions. Their food has few preservatives and almost all of it would satisfy Pollan’s recommendation to only eat items somebody’s grandmother would recognize.
And it’s not just Chipotle. Chop’t, a rapidly expanding salad chain where I eat lunch most days, is similarly making it possible for people who don’t pack their own lunches to eat healthy, fresh food near their offices. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s specialize in prepared and semi-prepared foods that make cooking either easier or unnecessary. Even Subway, which has surpassed McDonald’s as the world’s largest chain, fits into the “healthier chain” category, at least in many of their items and the way they sell themselves.
If American eating habits are really going to change in the coming decades, it will be because of innovations in chain restaurants and grocery stores, not because everyone is making their own chicken stock. The trends toward less time, less cooking, and broader availability of premade foods is irreversible, and efforts to fight against it are doomed, in most cases, to fail. But premade foods can become healthier, and semi-prepared foods — like the pre-cut vegetables that now dot many supermarket produce aisles — can make cooking easier. It’s great to cook food from scratch, but it’s not, as so many suggest, a necessary prerequisite for eating healthy.