I’m baking a cake for my son’s birthday party tomorrow. Now, today was a busy day and I had to do a lot of shopping, so when I was making the list, I considered picking up a box o’ cake mix and making one from that.
This isn’t a “go me, look at what a good Mommy I am” moment. The cake I am making probably won’t taste much different from a mix. It’s your incredibly basic chocolate cake that I’d be perfectly comfortable talking a ten year old through making. The reason I didn’t buy the boxed mix was nothing more than looking in my pantry, realizing I had everything I needed to make a cake anyway and figuring it was stupid to spend the money, plus the knowledge that in terms of time, it would have been six of one, or a half a dozen of the other. If I hadn’t had all the ingredients, it might have been a box o’ cake.
I would have felt no guilt about that, either.
It did get me to thinking, though, about how we perceive the effort involved in making a meal as well as a book I’d read recently.
When researchers watched thirty-two two-income families cook dinner for four days, here’s what they saw: It took people an average of fifty-two minutes from the time they opened the refrigerator door to the time they sat down at the table, whether they used a box kit like Hamburger Helper or cooked everything from scratch. The only difference was that meals cooked from scratch required about ten minutes more active time— minutes spent chopping and sautéing, for example— than box mixes.
McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (pp. 211-212). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
While it’s partially a matter of perception, she goes on to say something else that’s a really interesting point:
Box meals don’t save us time any more than going out to eat does, and they don’t even save us money. What they do instead is remove the need to have to come up with a plan for dinner, something that’s easy when you’re a skilled cook— and bafflingly difficult when you’re not. The real convenience behind these convenience foods isn’t time or money, but that they remove one more bit of stress from our day.
McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (p. 212). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
It’s why I, who am definitely a skilled cook, considered choosing a box mix for a cake when preparing for a party. It wasn’t that it was going to save me time, really. What it meant was that I wouldn’t have to go to the trouble to look up a recipe for the materials I already had on hand. (My smartphone has become my cookbook. What can I say?)
Though one thing Ms. McMillan may not have considered (and this is probably because as she mentions in her book, kitchen skills played no real part in her childhood or growing up years) is that even skilled cooks will order out or have an easy go-to when tired or stressed. There are ways to avoid it if one knows how, of course. Meal planning, shopping to a list, planning meals based on likelihood of how busy one will be on a particular day – all of these things are necessary to being able to have cooking be less of a stressful chore and more of a pleasant routine. And this isn’t a skill that’s generally taught, even in home ec classes these days.