A Cook's Diary

Why fast food won’t click without junk food (and why fast food is the anti-thesis to home cooking)

A couple of months ago, there were news reports about how fast food chains are attempting to revise their menus to address the clamor for healthier food. Just a day or so ago, there was a related article (can’t find the link anymore) about the irony of such attempt when we consider that people go to fast food chains for a fix of “sinful treats.” Ergo, revise the menu to remove everything that’s “sinful” and the essence of the fast food dies.

Personally, a meal at a fast food joint once every two months or so is not something I find totally objectionable. Change and variety can be good things — and even if only to be able to compare and realize how much better home-cooked food is than fast food junk. The real problem is when we start treating fast food meals as everyday meals. It isn’t just the health issue — it’s the attitude problem that I’m more concerned about.

A good discussion on fast food, obesity and the reason why people are drawn to unhealthy food is found in an article by Mark Bittman in The New York Times. In America, it seems, there is a notion that it is cheaper to eat at a fast food joint rather than cook a full meal at home. Bittman also points out (correctly) that part of the attraction of fast food is that the average person finds cooking too much work.

As my 17-year-old daughter Alex pointed out so well just a couple of nights ago, a fast food meal is not cheap. It is fast, it is available (often 24/7), but not cheap. A fast food meal for four would cost around P500 — enough to cook two simple but healthy meals for a family of four.

Mr. Bittman’s second point about how a lot of people turn their back on cooking because of the work it entails struck a chord with me. As far as I’m concerned, that observation is true across many cultures, including ours. With the hours spent working and commuting, I’ve heard many complain that the last thing they want to do when they get home is to do more work — like cook their family’s meal.

In Filipino culture, there are at least two factors that contribute to this attitude. First, many of us grew up with mothers who cooked well and we never learned. Second, most of us grew up with live-in househelpers and now that they are hard to come by, we are so not used to not having someone clean up after we get the cooking done that we’d rather not cook at all than have to clean up ourselves.

The first is about being too lazy to learn a skill. The second is being too lazy to do housework. Can either or both be justified by saying we already work hard and we deserve not to do any more work when we get home?

I work from home. I have a husband who’s semi-retired and who doesn’t mind doing his share of the housework. I won’t be so self-righteous and say that if I were still working in an office and I have to drive an hour or two each way five or six days a week, I’m such an ideal wife and mother that, yes, I’d still be raring to cook dinner when I get home. I don’t know that I’ll have the physical and mental energy for that. During the two short years that I worked in an office when Sam and Alex were in grade school, there were a few months when we had a househelper who couldn’t even fry tocino and I was obliged to cook lunch and dinner before going to the office in the morning and, well… it wasn’t exactly an experience I want to go through again.

Does that mean I agree that those who work are justified in living on fast food junk?

No, of course not.

There are websites and books that teach how to do bulk cooking during the weekend so that, during weekdays, finishing a meal takes a very short time. Examples are here and here. It also makes sense to teach our children to cook. If they are old enough (say, in their teens) to prepare meals without adult supervision, they can do the cooking on some weekdays. Finally, it makes sense for both parents to know how to cook.

There was this local fast food TV ad about a mother who couldn’t get home from work in time to cook dinner, the father and the two children tried to cook a chicken but the chicken was too big for the pot. Nothing had been cooked by the time the mother got home, the husband and children looked withered and starving, and her solution was fast food delivery.

I didn’t find it funny that the father was so stupid that he couldn’t figure out that a chicken could be chopped to fit into a pan, or that there were could be bigger pans in the kitchen (didn’t he even know what’s in his own kitchen?). I didn’t find it humorous either that the father was so helpless that he couldn’t think of an alternative (weren’t there any other items in the fridge?) while waiting for his wife to get home.

That TV ad smacks of propagating 1) wrong values (i.e., fathers are not expected to be knowledgeable about cooking) and 2) bad attitude toward home cooking (fast food delivery is a worthwhile substitute for home cooking) — both of which are, naturally, in favor of the fast food’s business.

Unless you’re one of those people who think that there is simply nothing wrong with eating fast food meals everyday (aren’t they, after all, adding healthier items in their menus?), well, the real answer to combat the addiction to the convenience is to realize that 1) it is cheaper to cook at home than buy a fast food meal and 2) there is no real good excuse for laziness.

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