Stop telling people they can’t cook
The idea of saving time has become a cynical marketing ploy of the modern food industry, says Rebecca Woollard, with the big producers desperate to persuade us that cooking from scratch will take us incompetents far too long. We must resist their siren call.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking past a shop when a sign advertising bagged salad caught my eye: ‘Fresh and ready to eat. Salad you don’t have to wait for.’ Excuse me? What other kind of salad is there? Was the suggestion that if you don’t buy an airless bag of sterile, washed-in-chemicals, stays-fresh-for-weeks radicchio, then you simply won’t have ‘time’ to eat salad this evening? It’s salad. By its very nature, it’s quick.
This airy cynical statement is typical of the ways in which food is marketed these days. Everywhere we look, we see adverts telling us we’re too busy to cook, offering us pre-packaged versions of recipes which, by implication, we’re either incapable of making for ourselves or lack the time to prepare. We live in a society that glorifies busy. Listen to an average group of adults talking and chances are you’ll hear the familiar one-upmanship game: how swamped they are, how the kids are exhausting, how work is a nightmare.
It’s no wonder the big operators in the food industry have tapped into this busy-ness syndrome and exploited it. ‘Hey, you’re time-poor, so buy this handy product and be grateful for it,’ so the line goes. But we must be wary of miracle food fixes. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that those pre-assembled ready meals are far more expensive than buying the raw ingredients. They’re generally worse quality, pumped full of additives, sugar and goodness knows what else. If they contain meat, the likelihood is it’s of dubious quality, cost being more important than animal welfare. Remember the horse lasagne scandal, anyone?
The fact is, no matter how convenient a product, it invariably takes the same amount of time to make something great from scratch. Take cook-in-a-bag fish with preservative-laden sauce. How much more tricky is it to parcel a fish fillet in some foil with a lemon wedge, a knob of butter and some chilli? Exactly the same time in the oven, and you’ll have something that tastes infinitely superior and is better for you – plus you’re not left with a mountain of packaging to send to landfill for afters…
Instead of microwave pasta, why not toss some olive oil and garlic through spaghetti with a grating of parmesan? Is it too long to wait 10 minutes for the spaghetti to cook? And what could be a more perfect low-effort supper than eggs on toast? Eggs are the holy grail of fast food.
You might argue that not everyone has the confidence or know-how to create meals off-the-cuff. I would reply that with the abundance of free recipe content and techniques online, anyone who wants to feed themselves and their family well is able to. The tricky part is getting people to realise this. Until consumers are willing to take on the responsibility of looking after themselves (and the planet), rather than picking the easiest option, there will be no change. In a world where our children are becoming fatter, our farmers are in trouble and our meat is being pumped with drugs to keep it ‘healthy’, isn’t this something we should all be fighting for? Or is that bag of salad you don’t have to wash really too good to resist?