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Taking the easy way out


Does the detail and complexity of planning meals seem out of place in our age of modern conveniences? Does adding up tables of numbers, even with the help of a computer, strike you as the last thing you want to do in connection with food? Do you look at all of this meal planning and calorie calculation and say, ``Can't I just push a button and make it all happen automatically?''

Well, do I have a deal for you.

If you're not overly fussy about everything you eat being lovingly prepared on the stove; if cooking is something you do in order to eat, not because you enjoy it; and if ``plenty and now'' eclipses ``gourmet epiphany'' among your culinary desiderata, your meal planning and preparation can be simplified by about a factor of fifty.

What I'm talking about is frozen entrees and dinners, ready to microwave. When we prattle on about technological revolutions, we tend to get stuck on computers and cellular phones and satellite dishes, but for my money microwavable frozen food is right up there with the biggies. On a moment's notice, you can walk into the local feed store and choose among hundreds of well-balanced, generally nutritious meals, selected from the cuisine of a dozen different cultures. At a price amazingly close to the cost of the raw ingredients purchased at retail, you can pick what piques your palate, pop it in a poke, and pack it home. Don't want to eat it tonight? No problem, stick in the freezer and it'll be just as good six months from now! Hungry? Well, pop that sucker in the nuke, set the scrooch gun for six minutes, and it's feedin' time, late twentieth century style!

What's more, there's no pots and pans to wash, no stems and peelings to rot in the garbage for a week, leftovers--the portions are precalculated for one person and one meal. No more ``runaway spaghetti inflation'' (oops, too much water ..., add some spaghetti ..., too much spaghetti ..., add some water, etc.: just like making a bathtub of nitroglycerine when you were a kid). Plus, they print the number of calories right on the box: no more arithmetic! If you've budgeted 600 calories for dinner, just cruise the cache of cryogenic comestibles: here a Beef Stroganoff, there a zucchini side dish, everywhere a taste treat, until you hit the magic number. Further, given the number of different entrees and side dishes, the potential combinations are such that, even if you only ate frozen food from the local supermarket for the rest of your life, you'd never be forced to repeat the same meal.

(Some manufacturers don't deign to tell you the calorie content of their products on the box. Some provide a toll-free number you can call to obtain the information they consider you unworthy to know before purchase, but I choose to look at it this way: if they can't be bothered to tell me how much food is inside the box, how much do you think they care about how it tastes? Some frozen foods don't tell you how many calories they contain [or provide any other nutritional information], and others attempt to confuse you with deceptive serving sizes: for example claiming a package that a normal person would eat for a meal actually contains two servings. But companies that don't respect their customers enough to tell them the basic truth about what they're selling are rarely inclined to spend time on the finer and subtler points: if there's no calorie count on the box, or a package purports to contain 12 ``servings'' of 20 calories apiece, the odds are what's inside tastes like Kal Kan. Pass it by, and patronise honest companies that respect your intelligence.)

Now, I'm not saying that you don't give up something by eschewing fresh food and chewing exclusively on frozen. But, speaking as one who eats frozen food five days a week, you don't give up much, especially if you value the time and effort home cooking requires. Frozen food may not compete with the finest work of a great cook, but it's a lot better than my cooking, as the survivors of my culinary experiments will attest. One thing you don't get in frozen food is crisp vegetables and other crunchy roughage; it's as incompatible with the medium as luscious, liquid massed violin sound is with digital audio. But there's an easy fix. While Chef Magnetron is toiling away à la cuisine congelée, don't sit around looking at your watch, muttering ``When's dinner?'' Spend the time doing something useful, like making up a fresh green salad to begin or end your meal, depending on which side of the Atlantic you prefer. By the time of the blessed beep, you'll have prepared the perfect complement to your meal: crunchy, fresh, filling, and full of fibre.

If frozen entrees are a convenience to the person in a hurry and a help to those trying to plan their meals whose good intentions can't overcome an aversion to accounting, they're salvation in a box for the serious dieter. As we'll see in the next chapter, serious weight loss is a serious business. It involves mood swings from elation to despair, the struggle between short term gratification and long term goals at the most visceral of levels: this meal right now against a longer life span. How can frozen dinners help? By guaranteeing you that, precisely on schedule, you'll get exactly the food you need: no more, no less. When the diet willies take hold, there's real comfort in knowing that in precisely four hours, ten minutes, and twenty-six seconds you will have a meal you know is tasty, nutritious, and filling--one that will banish your hunger, however bad it seems at the moment.

Once you've stabilised your weight and expanded your diet to encompass a wider variety of food, there is comfort in knowing that, whatever happens, you can regain control of your weight simply by going back to the frozen food that awaits in your freezer or the grocer's. Having taken weight off once that way, you know it isn't intolerable. Knowing you can always resolve an emerging weight problem, before anybody notices but you, will give you the freedom and confidence to explore variations in diet and style of life after you achieve your weight goal.

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Next: Summary Up: Eat watch in Previous: Menu mix-and-match

By John Walker