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Happy Meals at Home? At Least for Some

In response to a vote to ban toys from Happy Meals, an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner in early November argued that it’s no biggie. The piece came from Karen Wells, vice president of nutrition and menu strategy for McDonald’s USA. She argues that the boxed meals – consisting mostly of processed foods with fairly high fat, sodium, and sugar content – are a treat for children, not a threat.

“Most children eat the vast majority of their meals at home,” Wells asserts, “not in restaurants.” She goes on to estimate that just a few of the approximately 90 meals kids will eat each month come through a take-out window.


I’m glad that someone views our fast food nation this way. As I noted in an earlier post, Americans spend just 27 minutes a day preparing food, according to Michael Pollan. By one count, McDonald’s has sold more than 20 billion of these meals since it first introduced the concept in 1979, averaging more than 640 million per year.

Even if families do not receive most of their entrees from a server in a visor, it is unlikely that they pull made-from-scratch meals piping hot from the oven. I suspect this is true even in the Jewish community, where food plays a central role in holidays and everyday traditions.

So what do we do about this? Short of a small-plate coup, or everyone becoming a food blogger in love with cooking and writing about it, how do we make this op-ed claim true? Luckily, there are people out there who regularly put healthy, sustainable meals on their tables.

If you are reading this blog, you are likely either one of these passionate cooks or probably know a few. If you’re in the latter group, you might be wondering, how do these people do it? I decided to email a few of them to find out.

Leah Koenig, former editor of The Jew and the Carrot, had a basic theory: “I truly believe that we make time for the things that we love,” she responded, “and for me, that wisdom absolutely applies to cooking.” Koenig, who used to work from home and has recently gone off to a daytime office job, still finds time to welcome the smell of fresh-baked pizza (even if she has to pull some home-made dough from her freezer) or pumpkin bread to the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband.

The same idea was true for Gabe Popkin, who lives with three roommates in a house just outside Washington, D.C. The housemates often cook separately but sit down together, or invite a hungry roommate to join a prepared meal. A couple times a month, the roommates organize a house dinner.

For Popkin, cooking and eating at home blends into his social life. So he doesn’t have to choose between spending time with friends and cooking. “I don’t feel as though I [go out of my way to] carve out time for cooking at home,” Popkin wrote in response to my email.

However, some wannabe at-home chefs do not yet have the passion for laboring in the kitchen. First tip to light a fire: Turn off the cooking shows, log out of, and start spending time with a real, live cook.

For Esther James, who lives with her husband in a house on the Jersey shore, offers this wisdom about priorities and pragmatism: “Making a home-cooked lunch in the morning trumps putting on makeup before going to work. I justify it by reminding myself that I can brush my hair in the bathroom at work… but I can’t make lunch there,” she explained.

Another strategy is to cook large amounts of re-usable or adaptable staple ingredients. “I generally try to make meals with core ingredients that I can reuse and change throughout the week,” explained Cara Berman, who lives with her husband in Arlington, Va.

Eating the vast majority of our 90 monthly meals at home is still a dream for most Americans. Many of us will still end up grabbing take-out now and then, and will often opt to meet friends at a restaurant instead of at home for a meal meal. But cooking at home is something we should all strive to find time for. If you’re still struggling to figure out how to make that part of your routine or how to cook, just ask. Chances are, a friend can help.

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