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.

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