Artificial Flavors

Artificial Flavors

I hate cooking. I really do.

Part of it could be that I never really learned how to cook ‘properly.’ I probably never learned because I didn’t want to. I don’t know why my teenaged self thought it wasn’t important (since I cooked then almost as much as I do now; I just didn’t choose the menu). Maybe I’ve just always been lazy in that regard. Anything that required more effort than a twenty minute stint in the oven, I just couldn’t be arsed to care about.

Even after I got married, my dislike for cooking grew stronger. There were other factors at that point. There’s the rebellion every teenager goes through when they first get out of the house (I should mention, I got married at eighteen). That whole no one can tell me what to do now, I’m going to do whatever I want, including eating cookies for breakfast, ice cream for dinner, an entire bag of chips in one sitting and ramen in-between everything else, and no one can stop me phase. Plus, we were poor college students. So we ate a lot of ramen. I mean a lot. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if you can spring an extra $.50 for the good stuff, it isn’t entirely tasteless.

But eventually, my husband and I both came to a sad realization; one cannot live on ramen noodles alone. One gets desperately sick of them, even if one is careful to make use of all the flavors. So we moved on to oven-ready dinners. They’re just as quick and easy, but they’re expensive and, again, you get sick of them quickly. We were going to have to learn how to cook (together so that our misery could be shared, of course).

In the beginning, we each took three nights a week. The final night became the coveted ‘take-out’ night where we would order a pizza or eat at the McDonalds across the street. (Yes, we lived across the street from a McDonalds for two years. No, I don’t recommend it. It’s unhealthy, no matter how hard you try not to smell the french fries on the walk home.) We limited ourselves to one ‘easy’ meal a week to encourage ourselves to 1) learn how to cook for realz and 2) spend less money on groceries.

That was how I discovered my deep, undying love for my slow cooker. That was how I learned that throwing different groups of random ingredients into it creates a meal several hours later.

But I’ve lost the point of this post. I’ve spent it all talking about cooking. I should have spent it talking about eating. When I discovered Pinterest, where I find 90% of the new recipes I try these days, I came to a startling realization; you can make just about everything you love to eat from scratch. That doesn’t sound at all profound, but it is. The Reese Peanut Butter cups you love so dearly? You can make those. French fries? Pain in the ass, but you can make them better than the ones you get at McDonalds (and you can bake them instead of frying them without losing the taste so that they’re healthier to boot). And most of these homemade things, I’ve realized, are far easier to make than I ever imagined. The list of ingredients is few and the prep times are often short. Sometimes it takes an extra hour to chop vegetables, but aside from that, the prep times aren’t much longer than my old throw-it-in-the-oven meals.

Why make things from scratch? For one, real food tastes better. I think we forget how much of the food we eat today is fake. Processed meat has so much added to it, how much real meat is really left? And how good was the meat they started out with? The recent fast food pink-goo fiasco is just another indication of how horrible the things we eat really are. I have willfully refused to read stories on food production in the past. Why? Well not because I approve of the practices, but because I have to eat something and I’d rather not know how bad it really is.

I can’t claim to be perfect now. I still buy lots of canned and frozen vegetables and sauces. I don’t scan the grocery store looking for the ‘organic’ or ‘locally grown’ labels. But I notice a marked improvement in my enjoyment at the dinner table. I actually drool at the thought of making certain meals over again. No lie. We’ve even cut out the no-longer-coveted once a week take-out night and replaced it with occasional trips to good restaurants.

My husband taught an interesting lesson in one of his classes last school year. He showed a video about a woman going to the store and buying a ready-made pie (my kind of baking!), taking it home, putting it in the oven and serving it to her family. The next part of the video was about another woman in another home making a pie from scratch. The kids in his class went bonkers when they found out there was no pie for them to eat after watching that. They spent the entire second half of the video salivating. Which brings me to my (and his) point; why didn’t they salivate over the first half? Well, contrary to what some people might say, not all pies are created equal. And unless you got it fresh from a bakery, pie in a box is never going to be as good as the stuff your mother lovingly slaved over in the kitchen for hours before laying it on the table.

Taste isn’t the only advantage to eating real food on a regular basis. You feel healthier. You have more energy and less stomach problems (take it from someone who’s always had a sensitive stomach). On top of all that, buying the ingredients to make real food is cheaper than buying ready-to-cook meals full of processed crap. People see a $7 sticker on a frozen meal and think that’s cheap (for two people, I can’t compare prices for a whole family, I’ve yet to have to feed more than myself and my husband). But for the same price (or less, if we forgo the pre-shredded cheese to add to it) I can make something like chili in my crock pot which gets us two meals and usually at least one lunch. For the price I used to pay for one meal. I can buy a whole bag of potatoes; they last me two weeks and add to several different meals. We’ve cut at least $30 off our biweekly shopping runs just by eating more homemade meals (that’s $60 a month, at least. We usually save more than that).

There’s a lot of talk on the internet these days about how processed food is affecting our population. Obesity is a growing issue. I didn’t write this post to address it, so I’ll mention it only briefly. Much if it is probably due to the additives in the ‘cheap’ food we eat. Part of the problem is that it seems more cost effective to buy something off the dollar menu at a fast food joint for lunch. It seems more cost effective to buy the ready-made meals because everything you need comes in that neat $7 package. And let’s face it, people who are strapped for cash generally don’t have the time to spend in the kitchen whipping up fancy meals. They need a ‘stick it in the oven and it’s ready 20 minutes later’ type of meal on a regular basis (that’s a whole other blog post). But it isn’t actually saving them money in the long term. The trouble is, sometimes people can’t afford weekly or biweekly shopping trips and the ingredients you need to make fresh (real) food often goes bad after a week or two, making it more difficult for low-income families to save money in this manner (and subsequently making them less healthy).

My husband and I have marveled, both at our ability to embrace cooking without actually devoting a lot of extra time to it, and our ability to consistently save money on our grocery bill. Certainly neither happened overnight, but both have proved useful in the long term. And while I’m still not a huge fan of cooking, I find it distinctly more bearable now the results are so favorable.

4 Replies to “Artificial Flavors”

  1. I never learned how to cook when I was growing up, I didn’t even help Mom in the kitchen that often. But suddenly when I got married, I was overcome by the desire to be a Stepford wife, so I started experimenting in the kitchen. It didn’t always go well… but I’ve definitely gotten better at it, and you’re so right – It’s so much less expensive to eat home-cooked meals!

    One of my favorite meals is homemade chicken noodle soup. 1 chicken breast, cooked shredded into pieces, a couple bouillon cubes, flour, salt, one egg, and water. At most it costs maybe $2 for all the supplies to make it, takes about half an hour to make the noodles, and it feeds Joe and I both for at least 3 meals.

  2. Actually, frozen vegetables can be better than even fresh! This is because they flash freeze them right off the field, so they may retain more nutrients than the ones that have been shipped, and sat, for hours (or even days).

    Also, you can order a hand-held cheese grater (like the ones they use at restaurants) online. Then you can buy blocks of cheese instead of the pre-shredded stuff. We love our grater – use it all the time, and the pieces can be put in the dishwasher when we’re done with it!

    Hooray for fresh food!

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