Living by the Microwave

by Matthew Gordon

What’s a meal worth to you? This obviously changes based on a variety of things: the ingredients, the time involved, and the venue. A fancy restaurant meal can be worth more than a meal at home. A steak dinner can be worth more than a burger. Putting in the time to make your signature creation can be worth more than eating something anyone could make. So, then: What if your goal is simply to go from being hungry to being full?

Presuming you want your meal to taste reasonably good, not take an unreasonable amount of time, and be at least kind of nutritious, premade food is probably a great option for you. The best-tasting premade foods are better or as good as any fast-food joint. They can be popped in the microwave for a single serving, or the oven for family size, while you do whatever it is you do with your time.

Articles like last month’s Home-Cooked Challenge pit home-cooked meals against junk food in a false dilemma (its first sentence consists mostly of the phrase, “I pulled the junk-food bin, took the Pop-Tarts out of the bread drawer and cleared off the cracker and cookie shelf, and our week without prepared foods began”). However, “prepared foods” aren’t limited to “the junk-food bin.” Yes, your meal should not consist of potato chips or boxed macaroni and cheese, for all kinds of reasons. No, that doesn’t mean you have to make your own pasta or slaughter chickens in the backyard. Many brands offer premade, often frozen, meals in individual or family-size packages that make for a quick alternative to spending most of an evening thawing meat (see: the Lean Cuisine line of frozen meals; Trader Joe’s).

Figuring out how much you spend at the grocery store per week doesn’t tell the story of what you pay for each meal. A useful way to frame the cost of eating is in terms of dollars per pound. Figure out how many grams it takes to fill you, probably between half a pound (227g) and a pound (454g). Then divide whatever the mass on the package of the premade food is by that approximate number and you know how many meals it is for you. Divide the price by that meal number and you know what that food costs you per meal. For example, let’s say a premade dinner that cost $8 is two pounds (908g), and it takes ¾ of a pound (340.5g) to feed you. Each meal of that item costs 8/(908/340.5), or exactly $3.

If this seems a little too mathematical for something like eating food, a lot of Chinese take-out places in Manhattan use exactly this logic, charging by the pound ($6.29 per pound in my limited experience — I made sure not to take anything with bones in it). The salad bar sections at grocery stores like Whole Foods also charge by the pound (generally $7.99 per pound. Tip: avoid getting weighed down by dressing).

An added benefit is that once you know what it takes to fill you and you’re able to buy by mass, you’ll almost never need to throw anything out. It’s a new level of portion control. If like above you need three-quarters of a pound of food for a decent-size meal, and you’re able to buy 1.5 pounds of food, that’s exactly two meals. You’ll never have that small sliver of food left on your plate causing you to either overstuff yourself or banish leftovers to the trash. You’ll also never be just hungry enough to splurge on dessert, with either your calorie count or your wallet. You’d need a butcher shop-grade scale to accomplish this with the meals you make yourself.

Premade food is ideal for this kind of kitchen calculation because you’re generally buying all the meal’s ingredients in the same box, and that box contains details on the mass and nutritional information of that food. You could add the cost of all the ingredients you’re buying and then divide by the number of meals you got from them, or you could just check the premade food’s box. Having gone the more complicated route, I’ve found it’s often at least as expensive anyway.

Nutrition information is your friend here. When you’re sizing up steaks, you don’t know exactly how many grams of fat are in the marbling. If you come across a homemade lemon sauce, you don’t know what the exact sugar content is. On premade foods, those amounts are right there on the label. In my experience, the only consistent pitfall of premade food is the often high sodium content. I balance it out by not using salt as a seasoning on anything. Here’s Mother Jones’s senior editor Kiera Butler examining just how healthy frozen meals from Trader Joe’s are:

The time benefits are enormous. Even if you spend 50 cents more for a meal for yourself, or $2 more for a family of four, the time you save can easily outstrip that monetary value. Let’s say you were going to make a simple, easy, non-creative meal in half an hour for that family. Tossing something in the microwave or oven with barely any oversight takes basically no time at all. By doing that, you’re forgoing the opportunity to make a whopping $4/hour cooking that meal.

A good friend of mine said in response to that point, “I don’t have an unlimited number of working hours per day.” Having a limited number of hours per day is important for a concept like this because it underscores that there’s only so much time you can spend, and spending that time cooking food that won’t help you explore your inner chef probably isn’t the best use of it. Even if you have nothing to do but watch your Netflix or similar subscription for that half-hour, you’ve spent $2 to free up half an hour’s entertainment time. Considering what it costs to go to the movies in any big city, $4/hour to be entertained isn’t a bad deal in the least.

This is all buttressed by the increasing reality that far from the saturated fat-laden TV dinners of the ’70s, a lot of premade food available now is simply food that’s been frozen or otherwise stored. When you buy a five-pound lasagna for $11 (my personal favorite deal), you’re effectively buying a small stake in a catered corporate event.

That a corporation made this food instead of your family really shouldn’t be a deterrent. Unless you have the ability to buy all of your food locally sourced, you’re probably relying on corporations to feed you in some way or another. (The stickers on your fresh fruit are a good reminder of this.) They get economies of scale when you don’t. If you can buy a pepper for 50 cents but a corporation can get it for 25 cents because it buys half a billion of them, why not try to buy into some of that corporation’s margin? Corporations are making giant servings of everything from fettuccine Alfredo to chicken tikka masala all the time, and they’re willing to sell you the leftovers at reasonable rates because you just can’t make a truckful of the stuff.

You’re home from work late, or the kids need your attention more than a pot of boiling water does, or you just have something better to do with your time. Sure, some premade food is bad for you, but some of any kind of food is bad for you. As with any other food, lots of premade food is good for you too. Why not make some reasonably priced, tasty, nutritious food, right out of a box? I have.

Matthew Gordon reads way too many books.

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