Food news — eat it and weep

This just in: Time stressed Americans are cooking less than ever

March 27, 2013|Susan Reimer

Like someone on a diet who can think about nothing but food, I feel bombarded by bad food news even as I try to clean up what is on my plate.

I am not a vegan. I am not even a vegetarian. But I have been trying for a while now to clear the junk out of my diet the way I should be clearing the junk out of my closets.

Bad carbs, red meat, fast food, salt, sugar and anything fried. Soft drinks, fruity drinks, processed foods and desserts are out, too. Whole grains, omega-3s, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, water and kale are in.

And like any serial dieter, I fall on and off this food wagon, but I thought I was part of a pretty big crowd of older Americans who were watching their blood sugar levels and their cholesterol levels in exchange for a few more years on this mortal coil.

But recent news about how we Americans eat has left me feeling like I have been cooking all by myself.

First, news from Bloomberg Businessweek that Americans are spending only about 11 percent of their household income on food, compared to almost 45 percent in 1900 and 30 percent in 1950. That seems to suggest that food is abundant and inexpensive today.

Actually, that might not be what it is suggesting at all, according to an analysis by The Atlantic magazine.

We spend only about 7 percent of the family budget on food we prepare at home — the lowest among all nations and a number that's fallen drastically since 1900. Wealthier Americans, in particular, are spending almost equal amounts of an average $10,000 annual food budget at home and away from home.

It is possible, The Atlantic's Derek Thompson writes, that the poor continue to spend about 16 percent of their income on food — the same as in 1984 — because increases in housing and gasoline prices won't permit them to spend any more. In addition, the poor spend about a third of their annual food budget of about $3,500 eating out.

We do all this dining out and taking out because we tell ourselves that we are too busy to do all that shopping and chopping. But an exhaustive family time study done by UCLA researchers indicates that relying on commercial or pre-prepared foods only cuts down meal prep time by 10 to 12 minutes, and yet only 22 percent of the "home-cooked" meals were made without them.

Margaret Beck, who contributed to the book "Fast-Forward Family," found that there was no significant difference in total cooking time for dinners made primarily from convenience foods and meals made from fresh ingredients, yet we continue to think there is.

I don't know. Maybe it is the shopping part we don't have enough time for.

Other interesting observations: Three-quarters of the weekday dinners actually eaten together by the families in the study were prepared with fresh ingredients. And the size of the American refrigerator and freezer may be the reason why we shop less frequently and purchase less fresh food.

And finally, there is "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," by New York Times reporter Michael Moss, the guy who introduced us to "pink slime" in fast-food hamburgers.

These "Food Giants" — through chemistry and marketing — have found our "bliss," an addictive appetite for salt, sugar and fat. And like rats in a cage, we keep tapping the lever for another serving. We are such junkies that fresh food doesn't taste like anything to us.

There was a time, after all, when cheese didn't come in dust form and babies didn't suck yogurt (and added sugar) out of a tube.

I am reading all this bad food news on the eve of Easter, one more holiday that has morphed from religious observance to food festival. Ham or lamb? And how many side dishes can you prepare at once?

Juice cleanse, anybody?

Susan Reimer's columns appear Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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