The Scam Of “Convenience” Foods, Why We Should Make Our Own Meals

Supermarkets now sell pre-peeled garlic cloves in plastic trays and celery pre-cut into strips.

Are we really this lazy and time poor?

Our addiction to so-called “convenience” foods costs us more than we realise, hitting the bank balance and our environment alike.

It’s not as hard as you think.

A lot of so called “convenience” products are actually not that much more convenient. Often you are paying a lot more for a less-fresh and inferior product.

The slight inconvenience of making something yourself is well compensated for by a certain versatility and freedom of knowing how to make your own meals.

To someone uneducated in simple preparation methods, if something isn’t packaged in a box with instructions, they may be tricked into thinking that they couldn’t make a certain meal. When in actual fact, the raw ingredients are often already quietly waiting in the cupboard or fridge, ready to be put together.

For instance, imagine waking up on a lazy Sunday morning with a craving for pancakes. If you usually use those “just add water” pancake mixes, what do you if you don't have one of those in the cupboard? Not to worry - there’s no need to get dressed and head to the nearest cafe. If you have flour, eggs and milk, you can easily whip them up at home while wearing your pyjamas.

pancake mix ingredients list

Pictured: This pancake mix contains powered eggs and powered milk, along with other additives.  Not a great substitute for fresh milk and free range eggs.

Avoid the queues.

Peak hour at the supermarket is the after-work rush. More and more people are lining up at the checkout with only a small basket of goods for their nightly dinner. Added up, these daily visits waste a lot of time.  With a bit more planning and know-how, you can skip the daily after-work shops, and only pass through the checkout once a week, at a less hectic hour.

Make it yourself and save money.

The business model of food companies is simple - work out ways to "add value" and charge more by repackaging and processing food we could easily create ourselves.

As the marketing of processed foods becomes more sophisticated, it's very easy to get sucked in by overstated claims of convenience or quality. They prey on the less confident cooks and time-poor customers who may not realise it is as simple as mixing a few ingredients together in a bowl.

Keep this in mind when you head to the shops. Whenever possible, try to purchase the plain base ingredients, like flour, sugar, oils, rice and dried pulses. These pantry items last for months at a time and so can be bought in larger quantities, saving you even more money.

The cheaper bulk items are often found on the bottom shelf of the supermarket shelf where they aren’t easily seen, whereas the more premium processed products are placed at eye-level. Take an extra second to look down for the plain packaged products, and you’ll be surprised at what’s hidden there.

Uncle Tobys oats quick sachets verses bulk plain oats on supermarket shelf

Pictured: Branded oats in individual "quick sachets" placed at eye level ($1.96 / 100g), verses bulk plain oats placed on the bottom shelf ($0.16 / 100g). The first option is twelve times more expensive.

popping corn kernels verses pre-popped poshcorn popcorn on supermarket shelf

Pictured: Popping corn kernels on the bottom shelf ($0.49 / 100g - makes heaps of popcorn), verses pre-popped popcorn placed at eye level ($49.86 / kg). The second option is less fresh and ten times more expensive.

The food you make yourself is healthier (and fresher).

We often hear advice from nutritionists to avoid processed foods.  The reason for this is that processed, pre-made foods are often overloaded with salt, sugar, additives and preservatives. Refined foods often remove the fibre we need in our diet.

Because these products are not as fresh, chemicals are included to prolong the shelf life of the product. Salt and sugar is loaded into these foods to compensate for flavour.

Take cheese for example. If you buy cheese in grated form, rather than in a block, manufacturers add an “anti-caking agent” to the cheese to stop it from drying out.  Anti-caking agents could be made from wood pulp, sand, limestone, or volcanic clay. If people knew they were essentially eating dirt to avoid using a cheese grater, would they think twice about it?

bega tasty cheese grated and in bulk block. ingredients list contains anti caking agent 460

Pictured: 250 gram grated cheese ($21.20 per kg) verses 500g blog ($17.18 per kg). This grated cheese has Anti-caking Agent (460) and Preservative (200) added. Additive 460 is powered cellulose, essentially wood pulp.

Do you have food intolerances or allergies?

Scanning a list of ingredients in minuscule print on packaged foods can be tiresome, and allergens can be easily missed. We put a lot of trust in the manufacturers to list these ingredients correctly.

A lot of this hassle can be avoided if we simply make meals ourselves. 

Remember the horse meat scandal in Europe?

If you make it, you know what goes in it. 

Avoid packaging waste.

One way food companies make money is by simply packaging food into smaller single serve quantities and selling it at higher prices.  These individual wrappers add up to a ridiculous amount of paper and plastic waste.

Not only is this extra packaging wasteful, it is simply not necessary in a lot of cases.  Buy the bigger quantity instead and divide it into smaller quantities using re-usable containers. Pantry items can be bought in larger quantities and stored in air tight containers for future use.  Most fresh food that is likely to go off sooner can be bought in smaller quantities without packaging from the fresh fruit and veg section. 

Sun Rice Basmati rice, pre-cooked microwave verses uncooked 5kg bag.

Pictured: pre-cooked "microwave" basmati rice ($1 per 100g) verses bulk uncooked basmati rice ($0.36 per 100g). Pre-cooked rice contains extra water and so the savings are probably twice as much as the figures imply. The microwave rice had a best before date in one year, whereas uncooked rice can last 4-5 years if stored correctly. 

One ingredient, multiple uses.

By storing food as the base, raw ingredients, we can use these ingredients for multiple dishes. For example, cashew nuts can be blended into a spread, tossed into a stir fry or salad, or added to other nuts to make a trail mix.

Separate herbs and spices can be combined in an infinite number of ways to add flavour to a variety of dishes.

However once these ingredients are processed and in their “convenient” state, there is no way of getting them back to the way they were.

Create Storage Space.

You may have found that the cardboard boxes and packaging that are designed to grab our attention on the supermarket shelves, don't fit so well in the cupboards at home.  As many pre-made pantry items contain the same ingredients, doubling up occurs.  If you already have the basics like flour, sugar and spices, you should be able to eliminate the boxes of cake mixes, pancake mixes, scone and biscuit mixes, batters and breadcrumbs from the pantry.  And that's just the beginning.

Tin cans full of cooked beans, chickpeas and lentils need to be mined, made, shipped around the world, then recycled after use.  On the other hand, dried beans and pulses double in size when soaked in water overnight. Storing the dried version instead of cans means that twice as much food can fit in the cupboard.

Make only the amount you need.

Did you know that a “serve” or “serving” - the term prominently written on many packaged foods, is a completely arbitrary amount, decided at random by the manufacturer?  They are simply guessing how much is enough for one person. As we all have different sized appetites and calorie requirements, they’re almost certain to get this wrong, and over-estimate in order to sell more product.

To take back control of serving sizes, we have to go back to making meals ourselves, and making only the amount of food we need.

With a little bit of experience,  working out how much you actually need is easy.  If a recipe says “serves four”, just divide by two to make a meal for a couple, using your own judgement to adjust where necessary.

The convenience food trap.

It's easy to fall into the trap of buying processed foods. Sometimes they are genuinely more convenient, or have a secret recipe that is difficult to replicate at home. But most of the time we're just wasting our money on food and packaging we simply do not need. Look out for them, and you'll do a lot to help save your wallet, health and our environment.

Don't know where to start? 

Here's a list of Twenty Foods You Can Easily Make Yourself...

By Juliet Guterres | | Food, Sustainability |
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