Cooking Outsourced

An interesting conversation over morning coffee…

The gold standard for good eating is a nutrious, exciting, home cooked meal consumed over a good conversation with the rest of the family at the end of the day, and without being rushed.

Or so says popular lore. But the reality is quite different – eating out, eating fast food, take-out food, frozen food, microwaved food, easy to prepare but boring food, over processed food. End result, not particularly enjoyable, not particularly healthy, portions that haven gotten too big. Possibly quite unhealthy in many ways.

What is driving this reality? Well, for one many people don’t really know how to cook well because we didn’t grow up around our moms preparing everyday dinners, and had no other opportunities to learn for a variety of reasons. I’m not putting judgment on that moms (or dads) should be home cooking dinner, but that is where one learns the tricks of the trade. Reading a recipe is one thing, but there are many little tricks and techniques in how to carry out a recipe that are not mentioned in the cookbook. Those are not cookbooks for dummies, those are basic algorithms for trained line chefs.

Then there is the time crunch. Our lives are busier than ever. Work and life has merged into just one ‘Wo-fe’. A good, well cooked meal takes planning, takes shopping and preparation, and takes time to cook. Not to speak of the clean-up afterwards so that there is space for the step-repeat the next day.

So is it time to outsource the cooking? Maybe the times of the home cooked meal are a thing of the past, just like rotary dial phones, and we should let it go. Build smaller houses, skip the kitchen and replace it with a small fridge, sink, coffee maker, and maybe a micro wave for the in-between meals, and a quick breakfast to start the day. Our society has moved from an industrial society to a service based society, where everything is outsourced.

But it’s not just a matter of convenience. It makes both economic and nutrious sense to do so. Cooking exciting meals you see on FoodTV at home on a regular basis may sound exciting if you have the patience and the skills to do so. But economically it doesn’t make sense. A good recipe doesn’t just need the basic ingredients like meat and potatoes (metaphorically), but a lot of little details. There are herbs, garnishes, and sauces that make all the difference. An iron chef plate is small in terms of total food and calories, but exciting to eat because of the explosive flavors and attention to detail. But you cannot buy or make herbs, garnishes, or sauces in the small portions that are needed to prepare a meal for 2 or 4. So you either buy bigger amounts and throw the rest out (poor economics), you cook a lot more and have left-overs (unhealthy eating habits), or you skip them and cook more basic recipes (poor nutrition, heavy food, boring flavors).

Restaurants can afford these things on better economics because they prepare the same dish many times in the same day, so there is much more leverage in the sourcing and preparation of the dish. Now eating out every day in a sit-down restaurant can be costly, because any economic benefit from leverage is offset by higher service cost for eating area and staff. But not so for the little deli or take-out services.

Many years ago after my first marriage ended, I spent the better part of a year eating out. I did the math and knew that if I ate at a local restaurant, kept it to an entree and a glass of ice tee, or an occasional glass of wine, I would eat better and cheaper than if I attempted to cook at home for one person. Now with a full household again we have a mix of home cooked meals and eating out. I enjoy a well cooked dinner, and can take any recipe from the French Laundry to Rachel Rae or Emeril and cook it and enjoy it. I love Bobby Flay’s flavor profile, but his recipes are not practical for home cooking because of the many sauces that are the basis for those flavors.

Recently I finally got a handle on my own weight. I was fairly stable weight wise, but quite a few pounds over my target weight based on physique. I’m not a gym person (been there, tried that), and not really into diets (been there, tried that too). In search of a more permanent solution, I read up on all the diets on WebMD. What I found was interesting – it wasn’t about this or that diet, they were just yet more marketing ploys for someone needing to say make a buck or create a personal brand. At the end of the day, if you just need to lose weight, it comes down to a simple formula. For an adult with average activity levels, to lose weight simply eat about 10 calories for every pound of current body weight. Once you arrive at your target weight (or intermediary milestones as your body resets only slowly), eat 12 calories for every pound of current body weight to maintain the status quo. And that’s exactly what I did, and lost 25 pounds in a reasonably short period of time. But in watching what I eat, it was amazing to see how big our normal portions are, and how heavy our normal foods are. Eating 10 calories per pound is an interesting mind game, but also a challenge in the context of our regular food supply.

It does make sense if we transition as a society to outsourcing cooking. The evolution in dinner preparation. But it should be a good mix of social eating out, take-out food, and healthy food. Less factory prepared meals, less fast food.

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