Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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I don’t know why you say Hello (Fresh), I say Goodbye

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One of the items in the swag bags at the conference I attended a few weeks ago was a coupon for Hello Fresh. You know, one of the meal box delivery services that’s a hybrid between home cooking and a ready meal. I figured I may as well give it a try. Considering on my boyfriend’s nights to cook he often says some variation of “what should I make for supper?” I thought it might give him a bit of a break.

Of course, the coupon was tricky and ended up being not quite as good a deal as it first appeared. It was a $50 off coupon but it turned out to work as $25 off two separate weeks. Which, honestly wasn’t all that great a deal. I chose the least expensive option: the pronto box (meals that take about 30 minutes to prepare – more on that later) for two (more on that as well) which still ended up costing me over $50 out of pocket for one week. If you order the box at full price, it’s $11.67 per serving. Less than you would likely spend eating out, but more than you would normally spend for a home cooked meal (and we rarely eat out).

After one week and three meals, I noted many of the things that others have already voiced. Things like: excessive packaging, nutrition, and longer than advertised cooking times. However, I’d like to expand on a couple of them.

The first meal we made was Herby Steak Skewers with Crispy Potato Smash and Feta. This recipe allegedly should have taken 30 minutes to prepare. Perhaps if it had come with the water boiling, skewers soaked, and if I had the recipe memorized it would have. Instead, it took the two of us 50 minutes to prepare. Considering that I’m a pretty confident cook, I can’t help but wonder how long it would take someone who subscribed to this service because they aren’t confident in the kitchen.

The next two meals were a little faster. Partially because I didn’t follow the directions in sequence. Rather, I did them in the way that I knew would be fastest. The Leek and Pea Risotto with Roasted Fennel and Ricotta took me approximately the allotted 35 minutes while the Pan-Seared Chicken Elicoidali (pasta) with Asparagus and Parmesan took about 30 minutes, as promised.

My other major issue as a dietitian, was the nutrition. The portion sizes were all out of wack. We got about four servings out of each meal, and we have appetites. On one hand, this was great, it made the boxes a bit better of a deal and I liked having lunch taken care of the following day. On the other hand, I worry that people believe that these meals are portioned appropriately and thus, may end up eating more food than they need. The other nutrition concern was the vegetable deficiency. The meal with the skewers did not have enough veg. A tiny orange pepper and some bits of red onion are not enough vegetables for a meal. I ended up augmenting the meal with some asparagus from the fridge. The chicken pasta only had a bit of onion and a small quantity of asparagus. Even the vegetarian risotto was a little light on veg (although definitely the best of the three) with a few green peas, pre-sliced leek, and fennel.

Considering that nutrition is one of the major benefits of home cooking, I feel like Hello Fresh may be doing more harm than good but providing meals that don’t have enough vegetables and have excessively large portions.

I also have the impression that many people order these meal kits because they’re short on time and want quick and easy meals. Sure, they save the hassle of going to the store and planning what to make a few nights a week but I don’t think they really save much in the way of cooking time. If I wasn’t already comfortable in the kitchen Hello Fresh would likely have left me with the impression that cooking “healthy” meals is complicated and time-consuming. I mean, if it takes 50 minutes to make a meal that’s already portioned and partially prepared, how long will it take to make a meal with unprepared ingredients? This is not the case. There are many delicious and nutritious meals that can be on the table in under 30 minutes. Rather than encouraging people to cook more at home, I worry that these meal kits may actually discourage people from cooking.

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Don’t blame Bittman, family meals are important

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I heard a piece on the CBC recently that rubbed me the wrong way. Then my friend sent me a link to this interview with the author of the study being discussed on the CBC. The study looked at the alleged negative effect that proponents of home-cooked meals (such as Mark Bittman, Jamie Oliver, and other celebrity chefs) have on over-worked mums. This bothered me for a number of reasons.

First of all, it’s not just out-of-touch celebrity chefs advocating for eating home-cooked meals together as a family most evenings. Most dietitians are on-board and probably quite a few other health professions. There are so many good reasons to eat together as a family: home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than restaurant, fast food, take-away, and packaged meals; there is also the important social aspect involved with sitting down and sharing a meal with others; also, if you’re sitting eating at a table you’re less likely to overeat and mindlessly eat than you are if you’re eating in front of the tv or in the car.

Apparently these celebrity chefs are making working mums feel badly because they don’t have the time (and sometimes the money) to prepare elaborate home-cooked meals for their families every night. I get it, we’re all busy but home-cooked meals need not take exorbitant quantities of time or money to prepare. We also need to get our priorities straight. Cooking meals should not be taking time away from quality family time. Cooking meals should be quality family time. Kids can help in the kitchen from quite a young age and can become increasingly involved as they get older. Bonus: children are more likely to eat and enjoy food that they had a hand in preparing. Also, what’s with the burden being placed on mums? I know that the bulk of housework and cooking often falls on women (sorry, not sorry anti-feminists). Men, get in the kitchen! Everyone in the family can be involved in cooking.

Finally, just because a home-cooked family meal seven nights a week might be an unattainable goal, doesn’t mean that we should just throw in the kitchen towel and order a pizza. It’s like the watered down physical activity guidelines that were created because most people won’t meet the minimums that we should truly be meeting. Or dumbing down the grade school curriculum because children might not be able to achieve the desired outcomes. This lowering of the bar is doing us a disservice as a society. Maybe nightly home-cooked meals are not realistic immediate goals. Set a smaller goal to start but keep that end goal in sight. A home-cooked meal doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s okay to have grilled cheese and tomato soup. Planning ahead and prepping ingredients in advance can make nightly family meals achievable. There is no problem with home-cooked meals. There is a problem with our society that doesn’t value home-cooked meals.


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Ready meals vs home cooking

A recent study in England found that recipes prepared from celebrity chefs’ cookbooks were less healthy than “ready meals” prepared by major supermarkets. I doubt that this comes as a huge surprise to many. Did anyone really think that celebrity chef meals were bastions of health?

There are a few problems that jump out at me immediately. One, I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare meals that are not the same. That is, if they’re making comparisons they should be comparing lasagna to lasagna, spinach salad to spinach salad, and so forth. I’m assuming that the types of meals available from the grocery stores differ tremendously from the types of meals featured in the cookbooks. Two, you have control over what goes in your meal if you’re preparing it at home. You can make modifications, substitutions, and omissions to improve the nutrition of the dish you’re cooking. If you purchase a ready meal from a grocery store you have no control over what’s going into it. You’re also far more likely to eat the entire thing, whereas when preparing your own meal you can have a smaller portion and fill-up on a healthy side salad. Three, this study only looked at recipes from celebrity chef cookbooks. There are a wealth of non-celeb cookbooks full of healthy recipes. We also can’t be certain that the criteria used to measure a meal’s healthfulness was truly the best criteria. It seems to emphasis the presence/absence of “unhealthy” nutrients but doesn’t look at the presence/absence of healthy nutrients.

Were these researchers funded by the supermarkets? I think that this study sends an unfortunate message to people. It suggests that buying a ready meal may be a healthier option than preparing a meal at home.  I am still a staunch advocate of home cooking as the healthiest option for everyone.