Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I'm not the least bit surprised 

Most economists wouldn't be by this story (from WSJ, subscribers' link)

While it's true that a frozen lasagna dish is usually faster to make than homemade lasagna, researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles wanted to find out how convenience foods are used in the real world. After they videotaped family cooking habits, the researchers saw that convenience foods weren't used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.

When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare -- like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods, according to the research, which was published in the July issue of the British Food Journal and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds science, economic and other research.

Says anthropology researcher Margaret Beck from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA, "When people use convenience foods, they are ramping up expectations for how elaborate a dinner should be."

...The study showed that meals with little or no convenience foods took 26 to 93 minutes to prepare. Meals that used a lot of convenience foods took 25 to 73 minutes to prepare. While convenience foods were time-savers on very elaborate meals, overall, there was no statistically significant difference in total preparation time.

One difference that emerged was "hands on" time -- the amount of time people spent slicing, dicing and stirring foods. Using convenience foods shaved about 10 minutes of hands-on time, but it didn't make any difference in how quickly the food got to the table.

The anthropologists assume that what you want to consume is time or a particular dish. What you are really purchasing, though, is a meal and family time. A more elaborate meal allows more time to talk; it keeps the kids at the table. And ten minutes without hands on the food is ten minutes to talk, play with your children, start your email, or what have you.

There is no reason why convenience food should be a substitute rather than a complement to food prepared from scratch.

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