Something happened to me on my weekly trip to Costco. Like all previous visits to the gaping, cavernous warehouse, I grabbed one of the buggies, flashed my membership card at the entrance and headed towards the fresh food at the back of the store. To do this, I had to  bypass all the too-good-to-miss deals (also known as impulse buys) along the way. Today’s excursion was all business: food to feed the growing appetites of my children, which I still find utterly astonishing.

I made it to the produce, escaping the temptations that lay in my path. I was quite proud of myself. I filled my cart with the usual suspects: a package of six multi-hued hothouse peppers, a three-pack of English cucumbers, a plastic bowl of grape tomatoes, plastic clamshells of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries (yes, we eat a lot of berries).

Then I headed to the dairy refrigerator and picked up a couple gallons of 2% milk. 

With all the items checked off my list I decided to toodle through the frozen and packaged foods sections on my way up to the cashiers. 

I mostly ignore the frozen and refrigerated packaged foods as I have no desire nor need to purchase forty frozen yogurt bars or a large vat of sour cream or a value pack of pizza pockets. I barely have enough room in my fridge and freezer for the food we eat every week, let alone room for items we consume on occasion.

Then something happened to me between the freezers and the aisles with the tinned goods–it was visceral. I felt sick. Physically ill. I was overcome with the feeling one gets when they have eaten too much, like the archetypal glutton. 

I couldn’t look at another box, bag or container. I had to get out of the store pronto.

What was wrong with me? Why did I feel this way? I went to this store to stock up on the same items I purchase week after week after week. Why was today’s visit any different? 

Something about seeing all the packaged items made me feel sick. Who eats this stuff? Why do they eat it? Who would want to eat it? All I can picture inside those packages is sugar, salt, ingredients that resemble sawdust and brightly coloured additives and preservatives shaped into something that is supposed to look appetizing. 

I know it is a complete judgement call to assume these foods are all bad for you, but I think most registered dieticians would agree. Any food that comes in a box and is considered shelf stable for a year must have ingredients in it that can’t be good for you.

There have been plenty of documentaries on the subject of food in America–Katie Couric narrated the one about sugar called Fed Up. Food writer, Michael Pollan is famously quoted as saying “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”, and he has made documentaries about the food lobby and food industry.

True, these are biased against the food industry, but with good reason.

There is something about the convenience economy that has given us permission–nay, easy access to meals that make meal preparation frictionless. There is no washing, chopping, measuring, boiling or sauteéing involved. Simply heat and eat. Time is valuable and between work and children’s extracurriculars, we don’t have that much of it so we clearly don’t have enough time to prepare meals, healthy or not. I concur. I used to look up websites with recipes that claimed you could prepare and serve them in under 30 minutes. Then it was under 20 minutes. I even think there was a site that touted 10-minute meals. Those turned me off too. 

Now there are companies like Good Eggs, Hello Fresh and Blue Apron that take all the washing, chopping and measuring out of meal preparation by leaving a tidy package on your doorstep. Just open it up, follow the cooking instructions, and about half an hour later you have a wholesome meal for you and your family–if you are prepared to pay a premium to eat like this (the cost averages around $60 a week for two to four meals depending on how many mouths you’re feeding).

But the truth is most people can’t afford those meal kits–they are designed for and marketed to the DINKS or Yuppies (yes, I used the out-moded term “Yuppy”) out there who pay for all the other convenience services in their lives (nannies, lawn maintenance, housekeeping, dog walkers, etc.). 

Everyone else grabs the box of frozen breaded fish, chicken pot pies or pizzas from the freezer at Costco that I walked past the other day. Why? Because it’s relatively cheap when you need to feed a crowd and you’re short on time. I have been one of those people. Why? Because the alternative is fast food, which is not an option and also I’m terrible at meal planning.

Meal planning is an art unto itself. It requires foresight, creativity, detailed planning and preparation (do you have all the spices, oils and ingredients listed in the recipe? Have you defrosted the chicken breast?), cooking skills and confidence. Oh! And let’s not forget the most important element: TIME. Rarely does one possess all of the skills and characteristics listed above. 

I truly admire friends of mine who have mastered the art of meal planning. I have been attempting to meal plan this past year, with some degree of success, but it has and continues to be challenging. 

Sometimes I get two days into my meal plan and realize we have tons of leftovers (a sign my kids did not like the meal) and I refuse to make another meal until the leftovers are eaten. Then I’m stuck with ingredients that will perish if I don’t use them up soon, but I don’t want to make another meal that doesn’t get eaten. 

I also go to the grocery store without a shopping list looking for inspiration and start buying random ingredients thinking “oh, maybe I’ll make a stir fry on Wednesday and I can do a lasagna and salad on Monday.” This haphazard approach to meal planning always ends in disaster and I lose my mojo.

I am also guilty of making the same things over and over again. Probably because they are easy and I know my kids will eat them. 

The most success I have had is when I go shopping in my freezer and vegetable crisper; I see what I’ve already got and start scribbling down meal ideas on the whiteboard near the kitchen.

This week I am attempting meatless meals. I’m only two days in, but so far so good. My inspiration came from a cookbook and my oldest son’s desire to eat more plant-based protein. I still have three more days to cook the meals I have planned, but I am pleased to report there were virtually no leftovers the last two nights.

The irony of all this struck when my youngest asked if we could have hotdogs and beans for dinner last week. I obliged and we stopped at the grocery store to pick up the dogs, beans and buns. All three kids gleefully devoured their meals. The next day my youngest exclaimed how hotdogs and beans was “the best meal ever!”

So why do I bother with all the meal planning and wholesome ingredients? Because we are all creatures of habit, and I believe in forming healthy eating habits. If I take the path of least resistance, meaning I buy those boxes of preservative-laden processed foods at Costco, then I will be making unhealthy food choices and forming poor eating habits, not only for myself but also for my kids. True, it’s easier as evidenced by the hot dogs and beans last week, but I also don’t think eating healthy means depriving my children of the odd convenience meal.

I will continue to make the effort to meal plan and I will continue to shop at Costco. I’ll just try and give the frozen food section a pass.

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