Sep 16, 2011

There is no such thing as a free lunch, or free time.

I never knew where this expression came from, but apparently there was a time in America when saloons offered "free" lunch as long as the gun-slinging patrons were buying drinks.  (Back when bars were called saloons, and patrons carried sidearms, I guess.)  But then as now, the expression rings true:  there's a price to be paid for everything.

There's also no such thing as "free" time, even though we've brought the full force of technology to bear in our attempts to create more discretionary time in our 86,400 seconds of every day.  Cooking and cleaning time has been drastically reduced by the introduction of appliances and "convenience" foods, and I love my washer and dryer, as well as my refrigerator, freezer and stove.  It's common that they are all going simultaneously, in fact.

But sadly it seems whatever free time we created has been sucked up by other activities: longer office hours, longer commutes, more activities for ourselves and/or our children and more hours spent in front of an electronic screen, whether it's a computer or television.  (Or for those of us who are multi-taskers, both.  Simultaneously.)

I fear we have made some poor trades in our relentless pursuit of "free" time, starting with cooking.  Or the dearth thereof.  Our grandmothers (and for some of us, our mothers) thought nothing of taking fresh, raw ingredients every day and preparing them into delicious, nourishing food for their family - there were no other options.  Eating out was a rare treat.  Food was never fast, except maybe the occasional grilled cheese sandwich.

Yes, it took time to cook beans or a roast, or to make cornbread or biscuits from scratch.  But whether they recognized it or not, they had the advantage of knowing - and controlling- exactly what they fed their families.  Now many families rely on purchased meals for more dinners than not.  (Let's face facts: there is nothing happy or healthy about a drive-thru dinner.)  For many families, a home-cooked dinner consists of heating up frozen, canned or boxed prepared "food" full of unpronounceable chemicals and laden with salt and sugar to preserve them.

Time and again, economists have pointed out that foods made from basic staples (dried beans, pasta and rice) and plain vegetables and meats are the most economical food choices, bar none.  It makes sense there's a price to be paid for the convenience of someone else cleaning, dicing and cooking, even if that "someone" is an assembly line of robots and minimum-wage workers.

The hidden cost is even more insidious - our backsides are bloating and our arteries are clogging, even as our wallets are shrinking.

What is our family's health worth to us?
I know (I do!!!!) that it's not easy to choose to spend any of our "free" time preparing food, especially if you view it as a drudgery or chore.  That choice may be harder if you lack confidence and experience.  And even your best efforts may be met with resistance if your family's palates are hardened through repeated exposure to high doses of fat, salt and sugar, courtesy of processed foods.  That's a lot of negatives to overcome.

But look at the positives: a gradual shift toward real food is healthier and eases your family's cash outlay.  Whether they realize or appreciate it now, your children will one day be glad you established a tradition of weeknight family dinners, prepared and eaten at home.  It's worth it when you find recipes your family likes and their eyes light up when they hear (or smell) a favorite is on the nightly menu.   That seems like more than a fair trade for the investment of some time and effort in the kitchen most evenings.  And who knows, you might find yourself enjoying it more than when you spent that time in other pursuits.

I hope the recipes and ideas I post will help others to take control of their family's nutrition and finances.  It may not seem natural or easy at first, but anyone can choose to invest some time into weaning their family off convenience foods and introducing real food to their table.  One of my favorite Facebook feeds is LifeHacker, and they recently gave a list of foods that everyone should know how to cook.  It's a decent list, and if you start with basics like spaghetti sauce and chicken soup, you can slowly fill in with other favorites you and your family like.  Once you've established a repertoire of "thumbs-up" recipes, you can look for make/freeze adaptations like once-a-month cooking.  A few hours of prepping and freezing once every few weeks can mean a month of hot, delicious dinners on your table faster than the pizza guy can deliver. Not to mention way cheaper.

Since there's really no such thing as a free lunch, or free time, let's choose wisely how we spend our family's time and money.

Happy cooking,