The Convenience Illusion

by | Jul 28, 2014

Photo by dickuhne

The number one excuse I hear for why someone can’t eat healthier is lack of time. Fast food is just so convenient, they argue. Cooking is so much work, they insist. Then there’s the shopping. Who has time for that?

Why can’t there just be healthy fast food?

Healthy fast food is the holy grail for some, but if you look more carefully you’ll see it is an illusion.

Lack of time is not the reason people don’t eat healthy. Poor time management isn’t even the reason. As most healthy eaters know, we don’t spend any more time feeding ourselves than most people.

Sure, there’s a fraction of the population (at every part of the health spectrum) that enjoys grocery shopping, cooking and being in the kitchen, and so intentionally spend more time doing it. And eating healthier will almost certainly be easier for these people, since they already have the skills. But spending extra time cooking is a choice, not a prerequisite for eating healthier food.

The reason we think fast food is faster is because of what I call the Convenience Illusion. It’s a psychological distortion that makes us believe that doing something new takes more time than something you’ve done repeatedly. In psychology this is known as the oddball effect. Cooking something healthier or finding a better lunch option seems to take longer, because doing anything new requires more mental effort. Basically, you are forced to pay more attention so it seems to take more time.

Conversely, the habits you do all the time seem easy, because they require almost no thought or attention at all. Ever clicked over to Facebook and realized you unintentionally spent 20 minutes watching videos of your friend’s cat? You hardly notice, so the amount of time habitual actions appear to take almost vanishes in your mind.

The combination of habits and oddballs makes you believe the drive-thru is faster than, for example, going home and cooking for yourself, but it isn’t necessarily true. One of my favorite episodes from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show was when he sent a dad out to pick up fast food while he and the man’s two sons made a healthy meal from scratch. The home cooked food was done by the time dad got home, and it even footed a lower price tag.

The truth is that eating better does take more effort, especially in the beginning. If you’re very new to cooking (and therefore slow), it may actually take longer on occasion––and it will definitely feel like it takes longer. But once healthy eating becomes your habit and is no longer the oddball, it will feel just as fast if not faster than going out.

Over time your skills will improve and the time it actually takes will shrink even more. You can also use some of the techniques I describe in Foodist, like cooking in large batches, building an arsenal of home court recipes, and having a well-stocked pantry, to boost your efficiency further.

If you have time to eat, you have time to eat healthier.

Are you a victim of the Convenience Illusion?

Originally published August 28, 2013.

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28 Responses to “The Convenience Illusion”

  1. Sarah says:

    This is so true! I never thought of it this way. Great article. This will definitely help me when I feel like resorting to unhealthy meals just because it’s ‘quicker’.

  2. Kristina says:

    True! Once I learnt how to cook it became so much easier! Since I got into the habit of keeping pre-cut veggies in the freezer and planning 1-2 meals beforehand, cooking a healthy meal is now a quick, uncomplicated affair. You just need to learn the routine and tools, it’s a bit like getting the hang of a new software.

  3. Becky says:

    We stopped eating fast foods about 2.5 yrs ago when my husband had 3 stents put in his heart. I won’t lie, it was difficult for about 5 weeks but then began to get easier. Now we cannot stand the smell coming from the fast food restaurants. We used to love the smell of French fries but it is nauseating now.

  4. MJ says:

    Ah. But … “going home and cooking for yourself” may take less time than going out for fast food. However, getting fast food also means that you don’t have to
    1) Shop for groceries (either after work in a crowd, or on a weekend when you have limited free time)
    2) Deal with the groceries at home (especially prepping fresh vegetables for storage if you buy on the weekend)
    3) Clear and set the table for each meal
    4) Deal with leftovers, and ensure that leftovers don’t go to waste, and wash the containers that leftovers are stored in
    5) Clean up the pots and dishes (over and over and over again, every day)
    6) Plan menus, look for cost savers like coupons or store sales, and arrange time to do all these jobs.

    I buy ingredients and avoid fast food, but I acknowledge that there is more to “going home and cooking for yourself” than the time spent cooking. It is misleading to leave out all the time, thought and energy that a fast food meal saves a busy and exhausted person with a family.

    • Judy DiVIncenzo says:

      It CAN feel exhausting not to give in to fast foods,especially as noted if you have work and a family to attend to, and even more so if you are (as was in my case) doing all that as a single parent. But don’t give up-save the complicated recipes for weekends or when you do have the time for more. It is all worth it because of the healthy legacy that you are providing for your kids. I got a great payback when just a few months ago my daughter thanked me out of the blue!!! for teaching her and her brother about healthy eating. She says she is amazed how many of her friends have no clue about what is healthy and she was really grateful for having that lifestyle trained (nagged?) into them! Made it all so worth it! (P.S. just ordered her a copy of Foodist,too)

  5. Samantha says:

    I totally agree with MJ – it takes a lot of time to purchase, clean, store, and prepare fresh foods. I’m an efficient and well-practiced cook, and we eat simply on weekdays – eggs, beans and vegetables. (Granted I am picky about vegetables – mine are literally farm fresh so they need cleaning and chopping but at this point nothing else tastes good.)

    I think trying to minimize that effort is detrimental to getting folks on board with home cooking. Instead of telling myself this is easier, I remind myself that cooking my own meals is affordable and most importantly – this is time well-spent investing in our health. I think Michael Pollan (or maybe Mark Bittman?) wrote a good article a few months ago about this, that we will just continue getting sicker until we hold more cultural value for home cooking.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I totally agree. I think there is still some kernel of truth in the Convenience Illusion though, in the sense that a 5 minute kale and eggs dinner can sound like more work than a 20 minute trip to get a burrito.

  6. Julia says:

    Cooking for yourself also means you will inevitably eat a good number of dishes that aren’t well done. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll eat more variety… it’s all in your hands, and falling in a rut is all too easy.

    The most challenging thing is to cook just for myself. For two it is a bit more pressing, and for three (and thinking of tomorrow’s lunchbox), it gets a basic necessity.

  7. When I left for college and had to start cooking on my own, I will admit that I felt like eating healthy took a ton of time! You are right, it was that I was so new and unfamiliar with the whole process that things did take a while. Now that I have been doing this for a while, I am able to whip healthy meals up right away with little thought or effort!

  8. Ginger says:

    Darya, such a well written article. I was impressed; so thoughtful and I agree with it all! When I read MJ’s comments, however, I agreed with her too! The way I remedy these two ideas is to convince myself that even though I may be spending extra time trying to eat, shop, and prepare freshly organic meals (even though it does get quicker with repetition) for my husband and myself every day, the true time saver comes years down the road when I have a healthy mate to enjoy extra years with. I don’t believe I would have this time to look forward to if we were fast food eaters. I think we would get sicker sooner. I worry too much about our health, and I love my marriage too much to sacrifice it’s future at McDonalds.

  9. When every minute from todo list to serving is considered, I think total time involved for homemade plant-centric meals is generally longer than choosing conveniently located drive-thru food.

    Plant-based meals need extra TLC: washing, peeling, trimming. And it starts with planning so perishables don’t go bad and so they are utilized to maximize nutrients, flavor as well as every possible edible part. Example: Carrot and beet tops get the quick and easy sautéed-greens work-up on same day/next day of purchase, but the actual carrots and beets can wait days if stored properly.

    Plan, shop, prep, prepare, heartily enjoy with an eye on multiple uses from stem to root when at all possible… No matter how I crunch the time involved, it does take longer than an around-the-corner drive thru. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Does it get easier? Yes, and for non-cooks I think it becomes more doable when the process is more “assemblly” rather than actual cookery. The cooking can ease itself in over time, but there is enough one can do without treading on that foreign soil all that much. Assembling example: Batch boil brown rice/farro/grain or pseudo-grain (search Darya’s great post on that). Cool, package in single serving sizes, label and freeze. Do the same for beans. Do the same with leftovers. Slick extra veggies with the slightest bit of grape seed oil, throw under the broiler on high, toss around and when browned cool and store in the same way as grains and beans. Don’t season. Save that at time of assembly. Then for a quick meal, choose a bag of grain, a bag of beans, a bag of frozen veggies. Heat and flavor with an easy salsa/tomato sauce/pesto – – flavor options are endless – – and you don’t have to cook them for a delicious “assembled” meal. Throw together a salad to go along with it and you’re done.

    Also, I think homemade plant-centric meals generally take more time than the occasional homemade fish/poultry/meat meal. In a crunch for time, the latter becomes more delicious by way of a simple sprinkle of seasoning and quick tossing under the broiler. Again, more assembly than cooking.

    There are countless ways to get meals batched and ready to assemble from the freezer during busy work days. and then flexing one’s budding culinary talents can happen on the weekends, but all homemade meals whether assembled are seriously cooked are so much better for you. But there is time involved, and it is more time than a quick drive-thru in my opinion – – entirely worth it though. So worth it that now those once hypnotic-in-aroma drive-thru French fries now almost turn my stomach. Go figure!

  10. Mary says:

    My fiance and I used to eat out pretty much every meal, but in an attempt to be healthier, I recently decided that I would start shopping for and cooking our meals. For me, the process of cooking was overwhelming at first, but I have developed a few time saving tricks that make the process much more enjoyable for me.

    First, I buy disposable roasting pans in bulf from Costco. I get 30 for about $5. I realize that this isn’t the greenist tactic, but for me, limiting dish washing time after dinner is worth more to me than being green at the moment.

    I also buy precut veggies and fruit when possible. I know that this makes the veggies cost more and may compromise freshness, but I am SO slow with a knife. This, too, saves me time, so I am willing to sacrifice a little money and freshness to keep me in the kitchen.

    Finally, I put a small tv in the kitchen. One of my favorite things to do when I get home from work is to plop down in front of the tv for a bit to decompress from the day. Now, instead of vegging out on the couch being unproductive, I watch tv while preparing dinner instead.

    I feel like I have gotten over the initial convenience illusion now. I actually look forward to making the dish that I planned and shopped for. It took a few weeks and a few tricks, but I can officially say that cooking no longer feels like a chore!

  11. Alexandra says:

    I think cooking for healthy for yourself is worth the effort, the prepping the storing etc.
    I may be the oddball here but I love prepping vegetables, especially carrots, I love peeling them, there is something very zen about that for me. And I love chopping vegetables (except for onions) again I find it very relaxing.
    There is amazing book I bought a few months ago, “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler. She used to cook at Chez Panisse. Thanks to her book I now have dill and parsley stalks in my freezer, for stock. I save broccoli and cauliflower stems and cook them to make pesto, add my favorite nuts some aromatics and you have a topping for pasta, fish, chicken, even a spread on bread.
    Great post Darya.

  12. Darya, I got your book in the mail yesterday ( signed ) Thank you 🙂 . I think you and Foodist are so awesome . I am really getting into the Foodist way of thinking .
    I bought a Fox Run Craftsmen Stainless Steel Mezzaluna to chop up my salad and I bought some spices Chipotle and Honey Rub and also Mrs. Bryant’s Mexico Spice Blend & Rub-Gourmet blend of Red,Chipotle,Chili & Jalapeno Peppers;Onions,Garlic,Parsley Leeks,Orange peel,Salt,Spices (1/2 cup volume)- . I am starting to go on the right track to being a Foodist. Thank you so much , Your friend ,

  13. Kathy says:

    This article was sent to me by my husband because I get on my soapbox about this all of the time. It does not take that long to cook a good healthy meal. With today’s modern appliances, i.e. crockpot anyone should be able to pull something together that is so much healthier than the salt laden fast food of this day and time. Cooking for me is therapy. When I am down, I tackle something difficult or time consuming and reap the rewards at the end. No excuses is what I say. Great article.

  14. Dayra,Please put together a crockpot recipe book for us 🙂

  15. Darya sorry I spelled your name wrong , its late and I am tired.

  16. This is a great point! I’ve blogged about how people who think they’re saving time by eating fast food end up spending even more time down the road, dealing with illness due to poor nutrition. People don’t often think about the long term. Thanks, Dara. I love your work!

  17. Nancy says:

    I plan our family’s weekly menu in advance. This way I don’t even waste time on choosing which meal to cook for today. On week-ends I get most of meals prepack or at least the foods which will be used for cooking ready to use.

    This routine is the main part of my daily time management system and healthy lifestyle. It really works!

  18. Jessica says:

    Convenience food is a little different for me than that fast food example. I live in NY and my partner and I each work 8-10 hours/day, go to the gym, and commute an hour each way. Convenience food in our life happens because we are too tired and hungry to wait that long to get home to finally cook at 9pm. It took a long time, but we slowly routinized a weekly grocery delivery and meal-prep time so we could have lunches made and dinners ready to go during the week. Also, we are lucky that delis in NY sell a lot of fresh produce, yogurt, cheese, and other real foods that make it possible to grab something healthy very quickly.

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