Is a "Home-Cooked" Meal Superior By Definition?

Have you seen the latest Hamburger Helper ad? It's about how life interferes with your making good nutritional choices, leading to your picking up a "big bag of greasy, deep-fried easy." It's a great line, actually.

Then, in standard advertising form, they present you with the solution to your problem: Hamburger Helper, of course! It's the quick-and-easy way to serve your family a "home-cooked meal."

Interesting term, "home-cooked." Not "home-made" or "from scratch," just the underlying, unspoken assertion that a meal that is combined and simmered on your own stove top is better than carry-out food.

You know this is bunk, right? Here is the ingredient list from the popular Hamburger Helper Stroganoff:

Enriched Pasta (Semolina Wheat, Durum Wheat, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Corn Starch, Whey, Salt, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (Corn, Soy, Wheat), Monosodium Glutamate, Dried Tomato, Artificial Color, Sugar, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrin, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Citric Acid, Calcium Lactate, Monoglycerides, Natural Flavor, Onion Powder, Parsley Flakes, Tapioca Maltodextrin, Mushroom Powder, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Spices, Garlic Powder, Beef Stock, Butter, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Egg.

Mmmm. Just like Grandma used to make. Of course, Grandma had a PhD in Chemistry. By the way, this has 21 grams of carbohydrate per serving, more than a 6-piece order of Chicken McNuggets.

So in a burst of health-consciousness, you reach for the box that says "whole grain." Here's the ingredient list from Whole Grain Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni mix:

Pasta (Whole Wheat Flour), Corn Starch, Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Salt, Sugar, Ricotta Cheese* (Whey, Milkfat, Lactic Acid, Salt), Potassium Chloride, Yeast Extract, Onion*, Tomato*, Dextrose, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Garlic*, Citric Acid, Paprika, Mono And Diglycerides, Natural Flavor, Nonfat Milk, Whey, Silicon Dioxide (Anticaking Agent), Rosemary Extract (Preservative), Colored With Paprika, Annatto And Turmeric Extract. *Dried. Contains Wheat, Milk; May Contain Egg And Soy Ingredients. *Amount As Packaged. As Prepared, One Serving Provides 13G Total Fat (5G Saturated Fat, 1G Trans Fat), 60Mg Cholesterol, 670Mg Sodium, 24G Total Carbohydrate (6G Sugars), And 23G Protein.

Uh... yum?

Is the only solution to trudge home after a hard, stressful day only to spend an hour slaving over a hot stove?

Of course not. You know why? Because there are better carry-out foods than that "bag of easy," that's why. Maybe not perfect, maybe not paleo, probably not gluten-free, if that's a concern. But more nutritious than Hamburger Helper? Oh, you bet. Here are some ideas for better quick-and-easy food than Hamburger Helper:

* Boston Market chicken, turkey or beef brisket all work for us. They have some good side dishes, too -- green beans, garlic-and-lemon spinach, Caesar salad (you'll ditch the croutons, of course.)

* KFC's grilled chicken is quite tasty, and for a while was my favorite road food. Sadly, it has a tiny bit of flour in the seasoning, making it not-gluten-free, so I stopped, but boy, it would be far better for your family than Hamburger Helper. The only side at KFC that works for us is the green beans.

* Long John Silver's has grilled salmon, grilled tilapia, and shrimp scampi. Most of their sides are bad, but they do have a vegetable medley.

But you know what? The best place I know of to get quick-and-easy-but-nutritious carry out food is the local grocery store. You know, the place that specializes in food? Most grocery stores will have:

* Rotisseried chicken, a long-time standby

* Bagged salad. How much easier do you want it?

* Pre-cut vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and baby-cut carrots. Throw in some grape tomatoes, too.

* Pre-cut chunks of melon for an easy, nutritious dessert.

* Boiled shrimp or steamed crab legs, either one of which can be dipped in lemon butter, garlic butter, garlic-lemon butter, or cocktail sauce made in a flash by mixing prepared horseradish and a little lemon juice into no-sugar ketchup -- which they will probably have in the ketchup aisle. My local grocery stores often have cooked crayfish, too.

* Pre-made kabobs. Just broil or grill them, and you can even claim "home-cooked."

* The selections in my local grocery store delis change, but they nearly always have something we can eat -- roasted vegetables, sauteed green beans, chicken or tuna salad (ask about the dressing to make sure it isn't sugary), stuff like that. One local store even has marinated, grilled flank steak, yum.

* My local grocery stores all have salad bars, and quite impressive ones, too. Not only can you make a salad (duh!), you can also buy pre-prepped vegetables for that home-cooked meal. Grab some veggies, add a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced up, and a little soy sauce and garlic, and you have stir-fry.

* Speaking of those chicken breasts, you can sprinkle them with a little seasoning of your choice, or brush 'em with salad dressing, and throw them in a skillet or your electric table-top grill. Super easy. You could do this with fish fillets, too, and the meat counter at my favorite grocery store usually has pre-made hamburger patties, as well.

* Along with salad bars, my local grocery stores have Mediterranean bars, where I can get olives, Greek salad, feta, stuff like that. On a hot night, a Greek salad with extra feta is my idea of heaven.

* Why not have bagged salad and a steak? Or, even easier, since it's summer, sliced local tomatoes and a steak? I can cook my favorite 1 1/4"-thick ribeye in my big iron skillet over highest heat in about 5 minutes per side. Of course, I like my steak medium-rare; if you like yours better done it might take 7 minutes per side. Still no more time than you'd spend making Hamburger Helper, and if you open a bottle of decent cabernet, your spouse may get confused and think it's your anniversary.

* My standby I-can't-be-bothered-to-cook food is an omelet, made out of whatever happens to be kicking around in the fridge. I can make an omelet in five minutes flat. Somehow this seems more like a meal than plain old fried or scrambled eggs.

All of this is at least as quick-and-easy, if not more so, than Hamburger Helper, and it's a whole lot better for you and your family. Tastes better, too.

Please, don't be sucked in by "home-cooked." It's advertising nonsense. There's plenty of effortless real food to be had.

Share this

Lucky in CA

We're lucky enough to have a few really good road-food choices here in SoCal:

-El Pollo Loco: They serve only fire-roasted chicken which has been marinated in citrus juices. You can order it whole, by the piece, or with (and I won't do this) tortillas. Sides include cooked whole pinto beans, pico de gallo, and other std. Mexi fare.

-In 'n' Out Burger: Order their burgers "protein style" and you'll get the most amazing burger wrapped in perfect swaths of giant lettuce leaves. Add grilled onions and about a pound of napkins to wipe the yum off your face and it's a done deal. My husband and I order the "triple, triple: protein style"

-Carl's Jr. (they recently bought Hardees on the East Coast): Here in Cali they have their "Lo-Carb Six-Dollar Burger" on the menu; it's the typical lettuce-wrapped burger, but it's nice and thick. The meal comes with a side salad instead of fries. It's pretty good, but my favorite remains In 'n' Out.

-Tommy's: Their world-renowned chili burgers are my once-in-a-while splurge (without the bun, of course.) Their chili has no beans in it, rather, it's this magical concoction that looks much like, well, a baby's full diaper, to be honest. But the flavor, OMG, the flavor. Their chili is only 10 carbs. A double burger with chili, pickles, onions, and thick slices of tomatoes is a splurge... but what is life without the occasional splurge?

Tuna salad from the deli dept.

One thing to be careful of in tuna salad at delis: bread crumbs! Most people would never think of them in tuna salad, but I used to work in a deli years ago and when we made the tuna salad we would add a good helping of bread crumbs. It soaks up any excess moisture in the tuna salad and makes it look better and not watery. I don't know if stores still do that.

Bread Crumbs in the Tuna!

Oh, good info! An excellent reason to ask the deli people for full disclosure of ingredients. In these gluten-conscious days I'd guess fewer groceries are doing this, but it's the matter of a moment to ask.