From Worst Cooks to Good Ideas

No rant this week, ladies and gentlemen.  Yes, it’s Monday, and yes, that means that it’s time for my now-weekly WTF??? moment regarding that ever-mindblowing phenomenon of pop culture, “Worst Cooks in America.”  But I have to say, last night’s episode didn’t bother me too greatly — in fact, it gave me a relatively good idea.

The major challenge on “Worst Cooks” last night was a meal makeover of two popular frozen TV dinners.  I have to confess that I was out of the room for part of the set-up and thus missed the exact dinners that were being made over, but I know for sure that one of them was the standard Roast Turkey with Gravy; the other was harder to grasp, but I think it was either Salisbury Steak or Beef with Gravy.  Something beef, at any rate.  The chefs showed their teams how to make real-food versions of the dinners, swapping out the beef item for a pan-seared rib eye with a spice rub and replacing the turkey dinner with a pan-roasted herb turkey breast with English peas.

Neither meal was complicated, and most of the contestants on the show did remarkably well (not that there weren’t a few train-wreck moments, most notably when one of the newbie cooks proudly presented pink turkey to Chef Robert Irvine).  The point was clearly driven home: There is no need to serve your family frozen, processed garbage if you can make THIS instead.  And judging from the nodding heads and proud expressions on the trainees’ faces, most of them will probably head home and make turkey or steak for their families, first thing.

The challenge got me thinking.  A while back, one of my astute readers posted a comment here on the blog in which she provided me with the link to the nutritional content of a “Kid’s Cuisine” frozen meal — apparently, this brand of “dinner” (and I do use the term loosely) had been served to the children at a family gathering she’d attended, when all the adults were eating something different.  At the time that I received the comment, I was marginally familiar with the Kid’s Cuisine dinner concept, and I clicked the link she provided and chuckled for a minute before moving on with other things.  But after watching last night’s “Worst Cooks,” I took a closer look at the K.C. site.

I’m not saying I’m surprised or anything.  Far from it.  The site is loaded with splashy “nutritional” claims about how loaded these meals are with “whole grains” and “essential vitamins” and all kinds of other dietary buzzwords that are clearly strategically placed on these products to glaze over a parent’s eyeballs and convince them that it’s not necessary to read the actual ingredients or nutrition facts — just buy the dinner and feed it to your kids, Mom and Dad, because we’re TELLING you it’s good for them!  Each entree is standard “kid” fare: there are four different varieties of breaded chicken (nuggets, “bug” themed nuggets, popcorn chicken, and fried chicken drumsticks), some breaded fish sticks, a hot dog, a corn dog, macaroni and cheese, a cheeseburger meal, a quesadilla meal, and, most offensive of all in my book, a pancake meal.

Really, folks?  We need to market a frozen, pre-fab “maple-glazed” pancake meal for our kids?  This thing takes the freezer Aunt Jemimas and Eggos to a whole new level by INCLUDING maple flavor in the frozen pancakes, so you don’t have to worry about that pesky syrup, which takes so much of your precious time and energy as a parent.  Thank goodness we can all cross another daily annoyance off our lists.  (And while I’m at it, let’s think for a second.  Homemade pancakes aren’t very challenging to make; they’re even easier if you have Bisquick on hand; and now they’re even easier than THAT, because there are all those “shake and pour” mixes on the market where you don’t even have to dirty a bowl making your batter.  Do we really NEED microwaveable pancakes?  I shudder at the thought.)

So here’s what I’m thinking.  In the spirit of “Worst Cooks” and their smart challenge of last night, I’m offering a “meal makeover” of these Kid’s Cuisine nightmares.  We’ll start with the pancake thing.  Because, frankly, if you want your kids to eat these types of meals, that’s fine with me — I’ll support you in your quest to placate them by offering popular choices like breaded chicken and fish, mac and cheese, and the like.  With one caveat.  MAKE IT YOURSELF.  The first step to getting your children to eat better food, America, is giving them REAL food.  I’d rather see them eat a homemade breaded chicken cutlet, even one that’s pan-fried by Mom’s own two little hands, than a processed, additive-filled nugget formed of pressmeat (but it’s “real chicken!”) and molded into cute shapes.  (Hint #1: If the meat can be “molded,” you should skip it.)

So make the darned breakfast meal yourself.   And make it better.  Here’s how:

Swap the “maple-glazed pancakes” for Whole-wheat Cinnamon Waffles.
Swap the “fruit toppings” for Raspberry-Orange sauce.
Instead of “potato puffs,” try roasted sweet potato and winter squash shapes.  (Yes, I know — I rail against “cute food” — but I’m trying to emulate the Kid’s Cuisine thing here.)
I wouldn’t bother with the one little link of turkey sausage — they’re only including it to be able to say that there’s a “meat and beans serving in the meal — but if you insist, make some turkey slider patties from scratch instead.
And — gasp — you could even ADD a few components to this meal without breaking a sweat!  I wouldn’t count the berry sauce as a fruit, necessarily, so maybe some fresh fruit alongside would be nice.  Also, if your kids like yogurt, I’d serve up a nice bowl of organic yogurt with this.  Neither of those options requires much, if any, effort from the adult in question, and they’re much healthier choices than anything that comes in a plastic tray with cling wrap over the top.

It’s time to start thinking for ourselves and stop buying into the kind of smokescreen products like these are putting before us.  I won’t ask you to feed your kids tofu, but I will ask you to stop and wonder whether you’re really comfortable using your food dollars to send the message to manufacturers that yes, you ARE the kind of parent who can’t figure out how to put maple syrup on a pancake for your child.  If you’re okay with that, then I can’t imagine what you’re doing reading this post in the first place.  And if you’re not, then make the vow — right this second — that you’ll step away from the frozen dinners from now on and send this message instead: Dear Child of Mine, you’re worth the time and effort it takes to make a meal out of Real Food.

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4 Responses to From Worst Cooks to Good Ideas

  1. Renee says:

    A few years ago my daughter, then about 7, wanted to try one of those frozen meals. We made the mistake of buying more than one, but it turned out one was enough. The package looks exciting, but the food tasted awful, even to her.

    I do buy the Nutri-grain wholewheat frozen waffles for her (not the low-fat ones). She likes them, and I do like the convenience on school mornings. However, I’ll freely admit that I feel guilty about it. Maybe I’ll get my act together and make your waffle recipe. Can you re-heat them in the toaster?

    • Hi Renee! So happy to see a new commenter on here. Thanks for stopping by! I have to say, you’re reminding me of when I was a kid and Lunchables first came on the scene (hard to believe they’ve been around that long). My sister and I saw the other kids eating them and wanted to try them, so my mom bought them — and after one bite, we threw them all in the trash. I can still remember how awful they tasted: processed, salty, weirdly sweet, all at the same time.
      Until we got a waffle iron (new acquisition!) we would occasionally buy different varieties of the whole grain frozen waffles, too. They’re one of the convenience foods that I have always put down as “Ok in my book” in moderation. This recipe can be frozen and reheated in the toaster, though, and works well. I made about a dozen of them over the weekend and we’ve been doing just that! I will say that they’re a bit denser and wheatier than the frozen varieties (I probably use more whole wheat flour than the commercial brands do), but they’re really good and my boys don’t seem to notice. If you want, try the recipe first with slightly less whole wheat and slightly more all-purpose and see how your daughter likes them.
      Thanks again for reading! Hope you’ll come back again.

  2. Donna says:

    So glad you looked more into this… and I couldn’t agree more. Your last line hit the nail on the head–aren’t we all worth taking care of and worth the effort of real food? I once said to a colleague of mine that if my life were ever to get as hectic as some of my students, I would be seriously disappointed. They talk about eating fast food every day for dinner because they’re rushing here and there, and eating drive through meals in the car on the way to practice. To me, that would be a sign that something needed to give. Though, in hindsight, I should have kept my comment to myself, as she was deeply offended that I criticized her high-achieving lifestyle.

    In any event… I’d like to think in the world of frozen food and drive through windows… there are still ways to pack a nutritious meal for on-the-go days. Or make food on the weekends to have throughout the week. For example, I knew when I planned my meals for this week that on Tuesday, I only have about 20 minutes to eat dinner at home before rushing off to a meeting. So there’s a nice big pot of Tuscan Bean and Kale soup and a loaf of crusty bread waiting for me to just reheat and go. That’s my version of a happy meal 🙂

    • You’ve made the point eloquently, Donna. This is WHY I meal plan — not because I have more time than other people, but because I know life is bound to be chaotic and if I don’t plan, we could end up eating things I don’t want us to eat. On Tuesdays I always have limited time at home, hence the slow cooker meals; and this week I actually know I’ll probably be rearranging a few nights on the plan because I have one or two other dinner-hour commitments that have come up, which is when something like a “fend night” comes in really handy! Also, it’s a point worth making that a little advance planning and the use of your freezer can be really indispensable. The recipes for the Kid’s Cuisine meal makeover that I posted can pretty much all be made in advance and frozen. As a matter of fact, I made over a dozen of the waffles this weekend and popped them in the freezer to make my life easier!

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