Monday, February 13, 2012

Mixing, Pouring, Adding, and Stirring Ain't Cooking!

As far as health goes, it may be Big Food's most destructive legacy - this notion that "home cooking" can consist of mixing packets, jars, and boxes together.

It's incredibly pervasive too.

Some examples:
Take box of dehydrated frozen refined flour noodles. Boil water. Add box. "Cook". Open jar of sauce. Add sauce.

Brown meat of choice. Add packet of "flavouring". Stir. Add to store bought buns, wraps or rehydrated "noodles".

Take frozen box of "food" of choice. Microwave or heat in oven. Optional - serve alongside baked bagged French fries.

Take ready made pizza. Heat in oven.

Mix package of brown powder with eggs and water. Put in cake pan. "Bake".
I could go on.

When I meet new patients, I'll always go through their eating out history, but rarely their eating-out-eating-in history, but I probably should.

Those examples up above? They'll get me as close to actual cooking as watching movies will get me to winning an Oscar.

Cooking, actual cooking, is the transformation of raw ingredients. And there's definitely something special about actual cooking. A sense of accomplishment, of healthfulness, of basic goodness - even when cooking less than stellar meals nutritionally.

Sadly, over the years, the food industry has aimed to co-opt that something special, literally designing foods that require the most basic of input and effort so as to perpetuate the gigantic white lie that we're "home cooking".

Is there a meal in your home you've unfairly labeled "home cooked"? If there is, how about trying to actually home cook it this week? It may well be easier than you think, and guaranteed, it'll be far more rewarding.

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  1. I recall being in a university apartment in the early 1990s and making, from scratch, a cake for a friend's birthday. One of the other women in the apartment that I didn't know very well just stood there watching me, mouth agape. She'd never seen anyone make a cake from scratch, and didn't think it was actually possible in this modern age. My homemade cake doesn't require a cooking oil in it to make moist!

    As for my own cooking, I think on the rare occasions that I make tacos or fajitas it's "home cooking" since I will buy seasoning packets, but in general, I don't eat much pre-boxed/made food and was raised in a home where the only time we had things like that were when we went camping!

  2. Donna6:30 am

    Yes, Taco's is probley one of my only boxed cheats. We do most things from scratch. A friend who knows I bake, asked me to tell her what something ment on a "packaged muffin thingy" I had no idea, never used one of those.. lol
    I think a lot of people really think their "home cooking" though when useing things like this.
    Although I think Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, would not want to know how I make my own "homemade hamburger helper" Healthier, yes, less salt yes.. But beef and sour cream, egg noodels yess.. Sometimes, people who make things from scratch, think that because their food is "from scratch" It's healthy, was shocked last year when I found out my "blueberry bran" muffins had almost 300 calories. Even though I use wheat bran, whole wheat flour, very little sugar.. Yup almost 300 calories so 2 or 3 for a snack... Really added up. Even though I was useing very healthy foods to make.

  3. I usually cook from scratch, too. However, I consider canned and frozen vegetables and beans to be raw ingredients. I consider dried pasta (made out of semolina or whole wheat flour and water) to be a raw ingredient. I know how to make pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes and I know how to make homemade pasta. I know how to make homemade bread. I make homemade pizza (even the dough is from scratch - only the cheese is bought pre-made) every Sunday.

    However, making things from only fresh, whole ingredients is usually more expensive, a lot more effort, and nutritionally the same as using minimally processed foods, like canned and frozen produce and packaged bread and pasta. Hell, in every place I've ever lived, local produce is seasonal. If it weren't for shipping, we wouldn't even have non-processed/preserved produce in the winter. And there's a cutoff somewhere. I'm not going to be grinding my own flour, for example. Grinding grains into flour is processing. Is mixing spices and salt and putting them into a packet really that different? What is "processed" and what isn't?

  4. Mark Bittman, the food author, is on something of a holy mission on just this point. His blog is at and he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. He also is a proponent of lowering barriers with very easy, non-intimiating recipes. Recently he penned an editorial on the state of home cooking in the US- it isn't (quite) as bad as many of us thought. Positive notes are always heartening.

  5. Roman Korol7:21 am

    Here's my contribution to speedy home cooking

    Taco Seasoning Mix
    Beats the store-bought chemical concoction by a mile.
    Prep Time: 5 Minutes (time to find the spices!)
    Ready In: 5 Minutes

    Yield 1 ounce; use 1 Tbs or more per lb of meat


    1 tablespoon chili powder
    1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
    1/4 teaspoon onion powder
    Dash cayenne
    1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
    1/2 teaspoon paprika
    1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
    1 teaspoon sea salt
    1 teaspoon black pepper


    In a small bowl, mix together chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, oregano, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container.

    Enchilada Sauce

    Prep Time: 10 Min
    Cook Time: 15 Min
    Ready In: 25 Min
    Servings 8


    1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
    2 tablespoons flour
    2 Tbs chili powder
    1 cup tomato sauce
    1 cup homemade chicken broth
    1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
    1/4 teaspoon onion salt
    salt to taste


    Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in flour and chili powder, reduce heat to medium, and cook until lightly brown, stirring constantly to prevent burning flour.
    Gradually stir in tomato sauce, chicken broth, cumin, garlic powder, and onion salt into the flour and chili powder until smooth, and continue cooking over medium heat approximately 10 minutes, or until thickened slightly. Season to taste with salt.

    Both are yummy

  6. Anonymous7:29 am

    Well said! This is such an important message! I feel that I lot of people are forgetting or never learning basic cooking skills. I worry about kids developing food skills in the absence of such programs in schools anymore and while parents play a role, it is much broader than that and should be a core part of teaching healthy eating in school curriculum. I recently spoke with a student who said that the only thing they ever cooked in home ec class was muffins from a box, scary! I also feel that people get so caught up on the media and industry hype around micronutrients that they forget about whole foods and basic food preparation. That being, said I love cooking from scratch (salad dressing to main meals to yogurt!). We batch cook on weekends and freeze in individual portions. Manu planning and batch cooking is a great way to plan healthy, and economical meals.

  7. In the spirit of sustainable change, telling someone who currently calls making Hamburger Helper "cooking" to make sauce from fresh tomatoes and fresh pasta from flour and eggs might be a bit of a leap. Baby steps.

  8. This thing I make for myself at home most often is chicken, sweet potatos and random veggies (sweet peppers, asparagus, carrots, green beans, etc.) all sauteed together in one skillet.

    The sweet potatoes are "raw ingredients". The bell peppers and asparagus is usually too. The carrots are usually pre-cut baby carrots in a plastic bag, and the green beans are usually flash frozen.

    The chicken, is boxed, pre-season President's Choice chicken. It's boneless and skinless and lives in my freezer for several months. I have try to use non-frozen, fresh chicken, but I've discovered that it works out incredibly terrible. Usually tough and dry, or still pink. And if I don't use it up right away, it needs to get frozen and it's so hard to revive once frozen.

    With the frozen (and never cooked) chicken, it doesn't need to be defrosted. It goes right from the freezer to the heat skillet (with sweet potatoes already in). It cooks up near perfection each time.

    I know that grabbing frozen things from a box in my freezer, and frozen veggies in my freezer, sprinkling on some basil, oregano, garlic and onion seasoning and flipping/moving around the skillet may not be the most fancy form of food prep. But it sure works for me, and feels really good in my belly.

  9. I completely agree. I think the one advantage that these packaged meals prepared at home have over restaurant meals is that you (usually) know what is in them and around how many calories it has -- i.e. the advantage of having a label. In a restaurant, that information isn't available or -- if it is -- it may vary significantly depending on how well staff follow specific recipe/portion instructions.

  10. The place where cooking recipes based on opening cans and packages are most prevalent are sites aimed towards men. The magazine Men's Health used to post these kinds of recipes for the guy who couldn't cook but aspired to impress his date with a meal he prepared himself. Another target market is the dad who gets his kids on the weekend. Probably a lot of the health difference between married men and men in the various life stages where there isn't someone to cook for them is the outdated belief that real men don't cook.

    1. I'm still always curious about that stereotype. I hear it all the time, but I've never seen it.

      Everywhere I've lived, it's been 3 or 4 bachelors, and we all cook. Not all of our meals are totally-from-scratch, but homemade pasta, sauce, soup (we have a freezer bag of "waste" for making stock), bread and jam are common. And all of my friends have always cooked as well (I cooked a 3-course + amuse duck-themed dinner for 12 people with another male friend of mine). The only people I've ever been close to that *don't* cook have been women. And women who don't cook seem unfortunately common in my generation.

  11. While fresh, nutritious, & simple ingredients are important, I think you have to be careful with your message here. Most individuals don't cook because it "takes too much time" so it's important to show them healthy, quick options. "Mixing, pouring, and stirring" can provide a healthful meal if you teach them to start with the right ingredients.

    For example, instead of starting with hamburger helper (your example), start with red lentils and broth. Microwave for 10-mins, add frozen peas of other frozen veggies. Or, start out with a healthier box mix and watch your portions.

    There are many other "fast" options that are also healthful. Moving people to better eating habits will likely be more successful through small steps that address their current barriers to health change (i.e., telling them to choose BETTER fast options, rather than telling them they need to learn how to cook - cooking can be the next step).

  12. I kind of agree... but I also kind of agree with dee.calarco that it's a tough line to draw. Am I not cooking if I use "store bought buns or wraps"? I think it would be a pretty high barrier of entry if a person wasn't considered to be cooking unless the baked all of their own bread (and if they do, do they have to grind their own flour)? If I'm buying whole grain buns or other breads made with the same ingredients I'd use at home, how does that sully my cooking? If I make my own pasta sauce, can I start with canned tomatoes? If so, how is that nutritionally different than using jarred sauce that contains only tomato, olive oil and spices? If not, where am I supposed to get the tomatoes in February? I work full time, so I'm probably not going to ever be cooking all of my own food from scratch starting from raw vegetables and totally unprocessed grains, but I *can* try to buy things at the supermarket that are as much like what I'd make if I had the time as possible. I don't think it nudges people in the right direction to lump in whole-wheat dried pasta, all-natural jarred tomato sauce, homemade meatballs, and steamed frozen broccoli in with Hamburger Helper just because neither one is entirely handmade by the person in the kitchen.

  13. Anonymous6:26 pm

    I think it's ideal to use stuff as close to its original ingredients as possible, but I also hate cooking. Realistically, the healtheist life I can enjoy isn't going to involve an hour in the kitchen every night, or even most nights. It's just as frustrating to hear that I ought to be making everything from scratch as it is to hear that "healthy eating" has to involve complicated recipes or unusual ingredients, like the column a few days ago discussed. Yeah, I should make more time for this, it should be more of a priority, but it is tough to squeeze it in alongside other obligations, so it mostly ends up feeling like another thing I'm failing at.

  14. I guess people hear what they want to hear.

    I blogged about not fooling oneself into thinking mixing's home cooking.

    I didn't blog about cooking everything from scratch. Instead I challenged readers to take one meal they had been box cooking and to try it from scratch.

  15. George W.8:25 pm

    I'm wondering where you draw the line.

    Is flour a raw ingredient, even though it's milled? I'm guessing you'd say yes.

    What about self-raising flour, since it's got added salt and baking powder? I'm guessing that's a yes as well.

    But why then draw the line at a chocolate cake packet mix, which is basically self-raising flour with added sugar, cocoa, and emulsifiers. Maybe some powdered milk and colouring as well.

    The distinction just seems completely arbitrary, especially considering I can whip up a batch of scones from self-raising flour just as easily as I can a cake from a packet mix.

  16. That's what I thought cooking was, until I was in my early 20s and bumped into a farmers market in Santa Cruz. Pretty colors! Yummy stuff that beat the pants off anything at the grocery. I'm still learning, and I take shortcuts, like the frozen ravioli I'm making tomorrow. The sauce, I make myself, though I start from tomato paste, and add from there. I like making my own stuff, I can make it exactly how I like. It is absolutely cheaper than eating stuff prepped by someone else locally, even corporate industrial food, plus the ingredients are much higher quality. My parents think I'm very strange, and yell at me about putting salt or butter, and no amount of pointing out the absurd amounts of sugar, salt, trans-fat in what crap they're eating makes any difference.

    It's almost a radical political act to cook for oneself.

  17. Anonymous10:52 am

    Wow - lots of strong reactions to this post. Really reinforces the myths about "cooking". It doesn't have to be complicated and doesn't take any more planning than Hamburger Helper. I am slowly but surely building a repertoire of quick "from scratch" dinners that I can get on the table in half an hour. e.g. baked salmon filet (just put in the oven on a cookie sheet), rice (brown is ideal but needs to be cooked in advance), peas (frozen - but as Mark Bittman says, sometimes frozen is the best quality available), fresh cut up veggies.
    Though I like to cook, I would welcome more quick ideas and better info that does not include exotic ingredients. The day to day demands can be a grind whether from scratch or box.
    I agree with Yoni's suggestion of converting one box/can meal. I think the guilt, anxiety, stress, intimidation created by trying to hold ourselves to some ideal is counterproductive. As someone else said, "baby steps". I try for incremental changes and holding to doing "pretty well" most of the time and just accept occasional compromises due to time, bad days, etc.