I have a confession to make: I think I’m starting to enjoy beginning my week with “Worst Cooks in America” and a Kid’s Meal Makeover.
The show itself is getting a little more palatable (bah-dum bum…no pun intended there, folks). As the weeks progress, the overall cluelessness of most of the contestants, predictably, has receded to a tolerable level. Some of them are really turning out edible food now. Some of them really seem to have had that “penny drop” moment, where they realize the value of cooking fresh food and how it will improve their lives. I have to give a nod to the show in that respect — it’s achieved something good with that particular side effect, whether it was intended or not.
It does, however, continue to provide me with inspiration, and now that I’m taking on the Kid’s Meal Makeover challenge, “Worst Cooks” serves a very important function: it shows me just how low the bar needs to be set for an average, or even below-average, home cook to feel like they could even attempt making their kids’ food from scratch rather than reaching for one of those frozen Frankenmeals. Last night’s challenge was a perfect example — cheeseburgers.
The “Worst Cooks” contestants had to showcase creativity in making grilled cheeseburgers for Chefs Burrell and Irvine; what most of them actually ended up showcasing was their complete lack of ability to navigate the act of grilling. In some respects, the challenge may have been slightly unfair, since grilling is quite different from cooking on a stovetop or in an oven; but on the other hand, it was a burger challenge, not a grilled salmon and Mediterranean tapas challenge. The only real requirements for the actual COOKING portion were: 1) Don’t burn it to death; 2) Don’t leave it raw in the middle; and 3) Don’t let it all disintegrate and fall through the grates. (Spoiler alert — Fail, Fail, and Fail.)
I turned to J. in the middle of the carnage and said, “Oh God, I’m going to have to do a cheeseburger kids’ meal makeover, aren’t I?”
He grimly agreed. As we watched, wide-eyed with a mixture of horror and fascination, I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out something Not Very Nice. “I’m changing my mind about the whole feeding your kids PB&J every night thing,” I announced. “Because after seeing this, I’m starting to think that might have been an act of mercy.”
Okay, okay, it wasn’t nice (though it did earn me a snort of laughter from J.), but it was TRUE. And I guess, in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather see kids eat a decent PB&J sandwich for dinner than a Kid’s Cuisine “Constructor Cheeseburger” meal. But of course, I’m here to proclaim that the PB&J vs. the PreFab Cheeseburger is a false choice, because it is Not That Hard To Make This Thing Yourself. No matter what the outcome of the “Worst Cooks” challenge may seem to indicate.
Here’s the thing about the cheeseburger meal. I DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH CHEESEBURGERS. In fact, the cheeseburger is arguably one of L.’s top 3 favorite food items. My issue, as always, is going to be with how that burger was sourced and prepared, and I can guarantee you that the frozen “Constructor Cheeseburger” does not meet the standard.
The big problem with undiscriminating consumption of cheeseburgers is the ground beef that goes INTO the burgers. No, I don’t have anything against beef per se, though I do think it’s worth keeping a close eye on the frequency of your consumption of red meat and making sure it’s not a daily staple in your kids’ diet. What I’m most concerned about with beef is the production practices, and those are particularly worrisome with most ground beef. The worst, by the way, tends to be pre-made burger patties, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that buying the cling-wrapped package of “fresh” burger patties from your store is the “scratch-made” option for producing a good quality cheeseburger for your kids. It’s not.
Without getting too scientific about the whole thing — Lord knows I’m no scientist, nor meat production expert — let me share with you the mental image I get when I think about what I know of the commercial production of the garden-variety burger patty. I once attended a “Youth Empowerment” conference at which one of the workshop options for the teens was a Sex Ed course. In that particular room, one of the exercises went something like this: they lined the kids up and gave them each two cups: one empty, one full of water. They then had each teen eat an Oreo cookie. Then they illustrated the concept of venereal disease like this: Teen A, holding her pristine empty cup, approaches Teen B as a possible sexual partner. Behind Teen B is a line of other kids, all cast in the dubious role of past sexual conquests. Starting from the back of the line, each person eats their Oreo, then takes a sip of water, swishes it around in his/her mouth, and spits into the empty cup — producing a disgusting black sludge. The cup of sludge then gets passed to the next person up, who adds their own sludge to it…and so on and so forth, until Teen B is left with a giant cup of mixed backwash, which he offers to Teen A. YUCK. (Also, let’s pause for a moment of eye-rolling about the dubious educational value of this particular exercise.)
I hate to break it to you all, but that’s the image that sticks in my head when I think about the production of a commercial burger. All the bits and pieces of various cows go into the grinder and come together to make that burger. When the American public looks at a burger, they tend to think of a singular cow. Not so, friends. Most of the time, you’re eating not just that cow and whatever it ate, but all the other cows that went into the grinder with that cow and whatever they ate as well. Oreo sludge. Yuck, yuck, yuck. The risk of E. coli contamination, in circumstances like that, is much greater than with your average piece of beef.
How to avoid it? Well, for one thing, you might avoid pre-ground beef altogether. Many butcher shops will allow you to purchase a piece of chuck (which is inexpensive and perfect for burgers) and will actually grind it for you, right in plain sight — ensuring that your burger meat comes only from that one, singular cow of your imaginings, rather than from the whole bovine posse. For another, you can purchase grass-fed beef, which has a much lower incidence of E. coli altogether due to the farming practices and the way grass (the natural diet of cows) reacts in the animals’ digestive tracts vs. the way corn (the artificially induced diet of most cows in America) reacts. As a bonus, grass-fed beef is much, much more nutritious than corn-fed beef, and has a lot of the fatty acids and nutrients that aid brain development in young children — things that conventionally farmed burgers lack.
So that’s it, really — just purchase your meat intelligently and make the stupid burger yourself. It’s not hard, despite what marketers might tell you, to form ground beef into patties. And if you cook them in a pan, rather than on a grill, you’ll avoid the falling-through-the-grates pitfall that plagued one of last night’s losing contestants on “Worst Cooks.” There are many more things I could say about cheeseburgers and kids, but I won’t. Just click over to the full menu of my makeover of the “Constructor Cheeseburger,” and think about making it for your kids. Also, think about where your meat is coming from. Above all, really, just…think.