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Which do you trust more: Packaged food, or homemade?

Posted Apr 30 2010 12:00am
You may have heard about those new regulations in New York City public schools banning the sale of homemade cookies and brownies at school fundraisers. Only specific foods are now permitted at these events: fruits and vegetables, along with “healthy” commercial products like reduced-fat Doritos and whole-grain Pop-tarts (have you read my thoughts on these?). Homemade goodies do not qualify, because their fat, sugar, sodium, and calorie contents are unknown.

I know, it’s a sad state of affairs when uber-processed Pop-tarts are acceptable while baked-from-scratch zucchini bread is not. Then again, I understand the thinking behind this policy, as upside-down as it seems. School officials don’t want kids snacking on unidentified, possibly artery-clogging, obesity-promoting foods without nutrition labels, and you can’t really blame them.

Besides, homemade baked goods are not always superior to something from a package. Plenty of time-crunched parents just throw together cupcake mix from a box anyway, along with the accompanying hydrogenated oils, preservatives, artificial flavors, and other chemicals.

I don’t have a clue as to how to solve the problem of school fundraisers. Not surprisingly, fruits and vegetables and low-fat Doritos have not sold as well as homemade brownies. Maybe we could abandon bake sales altogether and sell crafts instead.

Meanwhile, our preference for packaged foods over homemade, well-intentioned though it may be, isn't doing us any favors.

I encounter this attitude surprisingly often among health-conscious people. They’d rather eat a meal from a box than something cooked from scratch with real ingredients. Why? Aside from the time factor, the packaged food has well-defined serving sizes and precise nutrition values. You know how many calories, carbs, and fat grams you’re getting. Homemade food has too many variables, too many unknowns. This is one reason Nutri-System, Jenny Craig, and other prepared-food diet plans are so popular.

Like I said, I’m all for knowing what’s in your food. But packaged food is dead food, lacking freshness, flavor, nutrients, and that indefinable life force that comes from human effort. You can always tell when your food is prepared by a machine, instead of a person. Something’s missing.

If you still can't help feeling that processed food is somehow “safer” because it has a label and clearly defined nutrition facts, here are some ways to work on breaking this habit.
  • Cook with recipes that offer nutritional breakdowns. Many health-oriented cooking websites and magazines, such as Cooking Light , include this information. You can also buy inexpensive software, like AccuChef and MasterCook, that will analyze any recipe you plug in.
  • Inquire about ingredients when you dine out or eat something prepared by another person. It shouldn’t be a problem if you’re polite about it. We’re all getting used to accommodating each other’s health concerns. If you’re baking for a fundraising event or cooking for a potluck, be forthcoming about the ingredients you’ve used.
  • Slow down and really pay attention to what you’re eating. When you do, you may be surprised by how much information your body can give you about the sugar, fat, and sodium content of a dish. And you’ll become more attuned to the aftertaste of artificial ingredients.
  • Yes, it’s always a bit of a gamble when you eat something prepared from scratch without a label on it. You never know, though: that dish could turn out to be supremely delicious, healthy, and satisfying! When you stick to processed foods, you always know what you’re getting -- something mediocre at best. 
Text copyright © Eleanor Kohlsaat LLC
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