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The Trouble With Convenience

by Erika Nicole Kendall

If I buy it, I WILL eat it... so the trick is to... not buy it?

Here’s something that might come as a “duh,” but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it within this context before:

The easier it is to acquire something, the more likely I am to eat it… and eat a lot of it.

When my house was full of quick heat-n-eats, it was beyond easy for me to eat whenever I thought about food. All it took was a passing thought about something in the fridge, and before I knew it – it was in the microwave. It was in the oven. I was eating… until I felt stuffed.

It was quick. It was easy. It was overwhelming. And it all happened in under 20 minutes.

That’s why it’s so advantageous for companies to make food even quicker and even easier to cook… you get little time during the process to second-guess your decision to eat. Very little time to ask yourself, “Am I really hungry? Do I really want this? Should I wait?” And if it’s in your house already… you’re pretty much setting yourself up to lose.

For someone like me, who spends a large amount of time in an area with a kitchen and a refridgerator… I had to realize that the easier I made it to eat, the more likely it is that I would, in fact, eat. And because those “easier-to-eat foods” aren’t – by any stretch of the imagination – healthy for us, the more that I ate… the more that I was harming myself. The more of these foods that I ate, the more likely it was that I wasn’t actually filling myself at all… compelling myself to eat more:

Our processed foods are broken down to their most basic parts, mixed in with preservatives (which help, you know, preserve the final product), flavor additives, water, flour, various forms of salt, then manipulated to be whatever they want to sell us. The same ground up chicken carcass (which is what is in that photo) can be chicken patties, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, “diced chicken,” the chicken in your chicken pot pie, the chicken in your soup… whatever. Just look for “mechanically separated [animal] parts.” You won’t have to look too hard.

Once it’s broken down to create this… goo… chemicals are used to hold it in place to form whatever shape it’s going to take. Once it meets your saliva and enters your body, it breaks right back down to the goo… with no fiber inside to help push it out. It essentially deflates inside of your system, making it easier to consume more calories because you’re “not full yet.” Couple all of this with the fact that it takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal from your digestive system that you’re “full,” and you start to see why a food that breaks down this quickly is a recipe for disaster – a breaded chicken breast on wheat bread breaks down much more slowly than a chicken patty sandwich on white bread, takes longer to chew (buying you time until that 20 minute mark… see what that 30 bites was important?), takes longer to digest (thus leaving you feeling fulfilled longer), and keeps you from overindulging. [source]

We are creatures of habit. We also are hard-wired to want to make things easier for ourselves. (I imagine this is also why so many of us dread the idea of working out – who wants to struggle and work hard and sweat all day every day?) There’s nothing wrong with innovating to make things easier for ourselves. The problem comes when that “easy way out” actually creates more problems than it solves. The problem comes when “easy” morphs into “damaging.”

I’ve written about how I make clean eating easier in my day to day life. I would pre-cook things. I’d pre-prep things. I spend a half hour each week chopping, grating, organizing, rinsing, freezing and soaking. In a sense, I’ve already bypassed most of the cooking process at this point – I’ve made my own processed foods, so to speak. I’ve made it easier for me to make healthier choices, if I’m going to be overtaken by the quick “Hmmm, I want some food because I’m bored” feeling. Now, I’m eating a cucumber dill sandwich (maybe 220 calries) instead of a handful of taquitos and sour cream (approximately 627 calories).

Luckily, for me, because I eat so often… I don’t really think about food because I know it’s coming. It’s to the point for me that now, I’m not overtaken by that eating-out-of-boredom or eating-because-I’m-starving thing. I eat when it’s time… because it’s time. For me, because I’ve learned how to make quick and easy full-bodied veggie snacks – even spent a while eating giant heads (and stalks) of broccoli to snack on – I don’t even bother pre-cooking or pre-prepping things anymore. I enjoy the process and, because it is now a priority to me, I don’t mind making time for it each day. I know dishes that take ten minutes to throw together, and I know dishes that take an hour to put together. I just make sure that I pick appropriately.

There’s a psychological aspect to this, too – from the moment we put an item in our cart, we’ve triggered a chain of events. If the food has adequate amounts of sugar, fat and salt… it has triggered that chain in our system that becomes excited (because the brain knows what’s coming), followed by sitting at home and staring at it all in your face every time you enter the kitchen/open the fridge/peek in the freezer, followed by the repeated effort you have to put forth to say “Nooooooooooooo you will not win this time!!” and lastly followed up by you diving in head first… and the longer the process takes to complete itself, the more you are likely to eat. That kind of pre-meditation (the process of thinking about the food, then saying no to it) creates an expectation… and you’ll eat and eat and eat the food until it has lived up to the expectation you had of it. (This seems to be especially true of ice cream… at least, in my experience. Just sayin’.)

This is why, for me, it is especially important for me to be careful of what I keep within my reach and what I allow myself to access. Like, sure… I may pick up something I know I have noooooo business having, and I’ll stare at it for a minute and try to justify buying it… but the end of the process isn’t me buying it and agonizing over it at home. The end of the process is me – literally – putting it back on its shelf, doing a little dance, and walking away. (This, again, seems to be especially true of ice cream. Needless to say, I don’t go in the ice cream aisle anymore.)

All of this is to say… convenience makes it easier for us to do things we know we shouldn’t, so even when we’re buying with the best of intentions in mind, sometimes we’re still setting ourselves up. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I can’t do it.. so I won’t.” and putting it back where it belongs. To me, there’s nothing wrong with stopping this cycle dead in its tracks and throwing away something we know we shouldn’t have purchased in the first place. I seek to be aware of my limitations and respect them, or use them to my advantage. Except for the ice cream… y’all better hope I never figure out how to make mint chocolate chip ice cream from scratch. Good grief.

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Alovelydai October 25, 2010 - 10:58 AM

There was a guy on Oprah (can’t remember his name but he was a self proclaimed “conscious eater”) who said when you want quick eat or snack to make them yourself. If you put in the energy to make it from scratch then you’ve earned it. This was pretty life changing for me. It’s so easy to snack on cheese crackers and bite size snickers but am I actually going to make these items? Heck no! Who’s gonna fry scratch made french fries & chicken every time they want some? Not me. So guess what? My treats became extremely limited and processed foods are (almost)a thing of the past.

Great post, as always.

Trina October 25, 2010 - 11:03 AM

Wow you are totally speaking to me about this one. The grocery store is such an adventure for me and also the biggest test as well. What I have ended up doing is picking the product, yes ice cream and carrying it around with me justifying it. But I finally look down at it and say aloud mind you, “I don’t need you anymore.” And I put it back. I am beginning to be a bit more pumped about saying no than taking the food home to eat. It does take time to be prepared to eat well during the week and all the time but I’m realizing I don’t care. I want my ‘Hawaii body’ too badly. Now one day as I progress I will be able to just walk past the product and not even put it in my cart. But until then the fight/victory is what I need to keep going. I saw a small ice cream maker and practically ran from the aisle because that is totally the last thing I need to know how to make. I don’t even want to know HOW to make ice cream because I know myself. lol

JoAnna October 25, 2010 - 11:22 AM

I understand your pain. Once I started cooking practically everything from scratch, the convenience food doesn’t taste as good. Nor does fast food. It smells FANTASTIC, but in my mouth, something is missing.

When I was first told the trick of drinking a glass of water if I felt hungry, then waiting 10mins, I thought “This is a load of toro ca-ca! If I’m hungry, I’m gonna eat!” The trick never worked for me, but cooking a meal from scratch usually takes 20-40mins. I figure if I’m going to cook, I might as well cook a full meal, and make it worth the pots and pans and dishes I have to wash later. As a diabetic, I can’t just prepare a sandwich. I have to factor in complex carbs vs simple carbs, then the proteins and fat for the day. A bowl of oatmeal is ok if I know that the rest of the day, I may only have a fruit (like 1 apple cut in half to stretch it)and 1 slice of bread. If I know I’m gonna want my carbs spread out during the day, I’d rather have eggs or a half sandwich in the morning.

The nice thing about cooking from scratch? It takes at least 90mins to prepare a cake, cookies or pie. And you still have to clean up to make dinner. By that time, dinner morphs into vegetable stir-fry with eggs (you know when you have more vegetables than eggs?), wheat toast and fresh fruit. Or a chopped salad and grilled animal protein. After all that, I’m full and tired. If I want to eat a slice (or 1-2 cookies), I do and wrap the rest to go to choir rehearsal or work. Eating the sweet until it’s gone doesn’t appeal anymore. I’ve also learned how to cut any sweet recipe in half/thirds… (usually down to 1 egg) or to store the batter in the freezer.

Last summer, I bought a gelato maker off of craigslist. Never been used, still wrapped in plastic in the box 1 quart gelato maker. Inspired by Top Chef and Iron Chef, I had visions of enjoying and serving my own ice creams and gelatos. Well the thing worked great! I made vanilla custard gelato, and cinnamon gelato, and cactus pear graniti, and lime sorbet, and… that thing has been on the shelf, back in it’s box since December. That was the holiday gelato: vanilla with caramel swirl to top a cobbler. It’s like a cake: you have to make at least a pint of the stuff, and I can’t even finish a pint of Haagen Daas! I can now goto Coldstone with friends, get a single scoop of ice cream and not finish it. It drives them nuts! But that’s me now. It does tastes good, but there’s something missing…

PS: I do have a recipe for mint chocolate chip ice cream, if you ever decide you want it.

Erika October 25, 2010 - 11:49 AM

Ha! Maybe for December. I did just make my own peppermint extract, so we’ll see. 🙂

And yes, the water does work, but only under certain circumstances. If I get a craving, I guzzle – not sip.. I DO mean guzzle – some water to make sure it’s not some memory or scent that I didn’t recognize triggering the craving. Usually I’m too blown by all the water I drank to even think about food at that point, LOL.

I don’t know if I wrote about this before… but baking from scratch will turn you off to junk food altogether. I’ll never forget the cheesecake I made and was downright mortified the deeper I got into the recipe, LOL! I’m VERY particular about my cheesecake indulgences, now. I’d barely eat it more than a handful of times a YEAR, now. There’s just… there’s no way – I know what’s in it. There’s no way. LOLOL

Jennifer December 11, 2012 - 9:04 PM

You know this is the key for me with sweets too. Baking from scratch makes you confront all that sugar, butter and cream. Knowing what goes in it makes you realize that this can’t be an everyday treat. It makes you appreciate a good dessert too. The faux stuff circulating out there cannot compare at all. Love the article. Convience is the key problem to the American diet. Its easy to over eat and indulge because its at reach 24/7. When you have to put some work into say a batch of croissants or a batch of cookies you think twice about cravings. Generally after baking I don’t really want what I baked anymore.

Co Co October 25, 2010 - 1:16 PM

Great post. The rules I set for myself in my house are pretty much, no junk food and no microwaveable food. Everything in my freezer has to be thawed and prepared, so there’s not a whole lot of snacking going on in my home. If I want some junk food randomly late at night, I’d have to leave to go get it and that just isn’t happening 9 out of 10 times. (I’m likely to do it when it’s that time of the month though)

Maitai October 25, 2010 - 2:35 PM

I thought about this the other day, because I’ve been seeing ads on the train and on billboards for this 3 minute Ronzoni pasta. All I can think is, dang you can’t even take 10-11 minutes to cook pasta, now its got to be 3 minutes?! And those premade PB&J sandwiches?! I just can’t. The more I read your blog and read other articles about processed food, the more self aware I become when I look at labels and walk around the store. People don’t realize what a spell the food industry is trying to put them under.

JoAnna October 25, 2010 - 8:49 PM

Maitai, I can understand buying a rotisserie chicken, or soup or salad at an upscale grocery store like Whole Foods. But 5mins brown rice? Microwave pizza? Instant egg, sausage and biscuit breakfast sandwiches? Yogurt you can freeze to put your child’s lunch box that’s designed to thaw by lunch and taste “OK”? Ewwwww! The stuff doesn’t taste or feel right in my mouth and I haven’t bought any of it in 2+years.

Trina, if I walk around the store with it, I’m buying it. But I never grocery shop without a list, weekly menu, and a budget. If it’s not on the list, it don’t get bought! Like Erika said, once you’ve made your own ice cream, you’ll never go back to prepackaged.

Jessica June 18, 2014 - 2:28 PM

JoAnna, that’s just how I am. I make a list of meals to cook for dinner and lunches at work, snacks, and a “treat” (vanilla Haagen Dazs with 5 ingredients only, thank you very much Haagen Dazs). I have a limit of $70-$90 per week and I even make a list with the prices next to each item if I know them of have a recent receipt with the price listed. I have to buy food and various other things with that $70-$90. So, A LOT, I mean, A LOT of items are not in the budget. There is no grabbing various items off of the shelf and throwing them into my cart, hell no! That is the reason my hubby stays at home when I shop too. So my budget is what helps me not buy junk because that is money taken away from my meats, fruits and veggies that I need or I wont survive a week. And we know that meat is not CHEAP!!!

Maya October 25, 2010 - 9:52 PM

Thank you soooo much for this post. It really gave me food for thought. Your post and the other comments are VERY insightful. I’m 23 and never really grew up with a solid foundation for a healthy lifestyle, so now I’m learning as I go along. It’s hard but I’m trying.

Thanks again!

Cheryl October 26, 2010 - 10:13 AM

Another great post! In my weight loss journey I have had to quit going to the grocery store altogether in order to retrain my brain against convenience foods. I am fortunate in that my area has online grocery shopping, so I can see exactly what kind of food I am ordering. this has eliminated the junk food last minute purchases for me. I make my selections and then give myself a few hours before I submit, so I can go over it and delete anything that really wasn’t on the plan.

Aisha October 27, 2010 - 7:13 PM

I’m going to take a moment to pat myself on the back. My oven blew up so ain’t no cooking going on. I then realized that I had not a single convenience food to make. The only thing I could eat without cooking really were carrots, apples, or salad greens. I’m mad I have to spend some money on an oven but glad that I’ve cleaned up my kitchen. I do need to replace it ASAP because I’m eating out heavily right now.

Nakia September 11, 2011 - 3:33 PM

That’s why I started getting bagged salads, dried fruit and almonds. That way, I can have a healthy, snack lunch or dinner that’s convenient, too.

Jen October 12, 2014 - 5:03 PM

Thanks for an awesome article! My head is spinning with ideas for healthy snacks I can pre-prep, making me ready when the next “I need a snack” feeling hits me.

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