BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The rise of lazy foods

Lazy food spelled out in carrots

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Sales of lazy foods such as peeled potatoes, chopped carrots and diced onions are on the rise. But is there anything wrong with us taking a culinary shortcut?

Think of the percentage of your life that is ebbing away as you peel a potato.

Get the potato out of the bag. Trim off any sproutings. Maybe turn on a tap. Peel it.

It is perhaps no surprise that potato peeling was a classic punishment for those on jankers in the Army.

It's not like chopping an onion requires any great skill, but people tell themselves they are too busy
Lesley Ball, home economist

To many, peeling potatoes is a boring way to spend a few minutes that you would rather spend reading a book, watching a film or with your family.

In the UK, there are people who really can't be bothered with the most basic of culinary chores. Figures out this week from the price comparison website suggest there has been an increase over the past two years in the amount of money spent on a basket of "lazy food" products like grated cheese, sliced fruit and ready chopped vegetables.

Speak to a retailer like Waitrose, which has a varied range of "lazy food" and cooking "cheat" ingredients, and the picture is fleshed out.

The upmarket chain - which is rare in releasing very detailed sales data - has experienced a 40% rise in sales of peeled potatoes compared with a year ago. Diced onions are up 14%. Their butternut squash/sweet potato mix has seen a 29% increase. Across all prepared vegetables there has been a 17% rise.

Ready-prepared ingredients
A few shortcuts...

It is all part of a wider trend - albeit one that might have been disrupted by the recession - towards more convenience food, says Ronan Hegarty, news editor of The Grocer magazine.

"It is just a question of people wanting a lot more choice. They are not being lazy but eating at different times, maybe looking for something easy to prepare at work.

"These are often more expensive alternatives, perhaps people aren't as affected by the recession as many would have predicted.

"Retailers like M&S Simply Food and Tesco Express have a high proportion of people on the move. Convenience is definitely still on the rise."

Lazy cooks

Some of the more extreme examples of "lazy food" might be seen to indicate a decline in culinary skills.

Potato peeling in the forces
Despite having to peel potatoes, these men are happy

When in 1998 Delia Smith told viewers how to boil an egg, many pundits were incredulous, with chef Gary Rhodes accusing her of insulting people's intelligence. And yet last year, the pundits got another chance to throw up their hands in horror when pre-boiled eggs went on sale in supermarkets.

"Lazy food" conforms to one of the classic socioeconomic categories of modern times - the people who are cash-rich but time-poor. But there are some people who rue the decline of chopping and peeling.

Lesley Ball, a Wiltshire-based home economist who teaches children about healthy eating and food provenance, says ready-prepared ingredients distort our perception of food and where it comes from.

"I work with children a lot and some of them think milk comes from a tiger or a chicken. Some products, such as ready-prepared mango, melon or passionfruit are great for giving to children to introduce them to new tastes without having to buy a whole one, but they then don't have a clue what a whole mango looks like.

"This happens even with something as simple as an orange. They associate food not with something that's grown, but with a shop."

Lesley Ball makes muffins and noodle salad with pupils
Lesley Ball explains how to squeeze a lemon with a fork

There is inevitably a certain disappointment that people don't embrace the culinary process.

"I'm amazed that things like ready-chopped carrots and onions are even on sale. It's not like chopping an onion requires any great skill, but people tell themselves they are too busy. Whenever I work in supermarkets, I look at who buys these products and it's typically professionals, young to middle-aged.

"These ready-prepared ingredients have produced lazy cooks - they think they don't have the time to make real food. But cooking is a bit of ritual, it's a process to start from the beginning with ingredients you prepare yourself. Preparation is an important part of cooking. You get a feel for what you are making. And food tastes better when it's made from scratch."

And she has a pet hate. "Roast potatoes in the freezer. It's not difficult to make roast potatoes - you can just cut up potatoes and put them in the oven with olive oil."

There's a clear environmental issue with the rise of "lazy food". Diced onions come in a plastic bag. An un-diced onion comes in its own natural packaging - onion skin.

Rosalind Rathouse, principal of London's Cookery School, isn't surprised by the rise in sales of so-called lazy food - seeing it as a reflection of how people are distanced from the cultivation of what we eat.

Cauliflower in field
Would you know what to do with a whole one?

Many of those passing through her cookery classes have little idea about seasonality and sustainability of ingredients.

"You can see for busy people why they choose these foods. It's one-step before a ready-made sauce so in that sense it's not as bad. It's a short-cut and I think not for people who truly love food, but just want to fill their stomachs."

Has she ever bought chopped carrots? "Never. I wouldn't ever buy pre-prepared carrots. You want the freshest possible carrots you can have. You don't want it to have been through a machine and packed up in a plastic bag with gas to keep it fresh."

But what about the nutritional side? Are ready prepared vegetables and fruit not as good for us as the untouched real thing?

"One or two vitamins are very labile. It means that they are very easily destroyed," says Judy Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation. "If you cut something like cabbage or green pepper, those cut surfaces will gradually lose the vitamin."

But the good news for the convenience fans is that this isn't every vitamin. Ms Buttriss notes that vitamin C and folic acid can be partly lost with exposure to the air, but struggles to think of any others that we might lose from our green stuff. And even in those cases, it's better than nothing.

"If it's causing them to eat more fruit and vegetables as a result it's a good thing."

The use of mild bleach to wash bagged salads has raised eyebrows in the past, but on the nutritional front at least it's not easy to condemn prepared vegetables.

This is not the unhealthy end of convenience food. That space belongs to your typical high-salt, high-fat ready meal.

This "lazy food" is most typically a cooking shortcut, not a pierce-film-and-microwave bit of cooking avoidance.

Name this exotic fruit
Spot quiz: Mango, pawpaw, other?

And indeed it might be argued we all have a sliding scale between what we think is acceptable convenience and what we deem to be an unreasonably decadent expense.

Some people might laugh at the idea of a pre-boiled egg, but how many people insist on shelling their own peanuts?

Peeled cloves of garlic may seem a little lax, but who currently wants their chickens with the heads still on and covered in feathers.

The whole idea of buying your food has an intrinsically "lazy" element. You didn't kill it or grow it yourself.

The concept of the supermarket is a further slide into laziness. It obviates the need to trawl round the butcher, the baker and greengrocer.

But there will always be occasions when "lazy food" goes too far and becomes an object of mockery.

"One thing I've always balked at is a pre-sliced apple," says Hegarty. "Who is too scared to approach a full apple?"

Additional reporting by Megan Lane and Jonathan Duffy

Send us your comments using the form below.

These products are essential for elderly people like my Mum, whose arthritis in her hands means she cannot use a vegetable peeler without it causing her considerable pain.
Chris, East Yorkshire

It would be interesting to see if the rise in the sale of pre-prepared vegetables is accompanied by any decrease in the sale of complete pre-prepared meals. If pre-prepared vegetables is encouraging people to cook their own food rather than heat it up in a microwave then it is actually a step in the right direction.
Ben, Manchester

You're right, peeling a spud is a total waste of time. Just scrub it clean and keep all the vitamins, and the taste, of the skin.
Candy Spillard, York, UK

You can always taste when it's pre-prepared veg. If you pre-peel, no matter how good the wrapping, the veg will dry out. If you like good tasting food it needs to be fresh. And the three minutes it takes to peel and slice a carrot is a fair sacrifice.
Olivia Holmes, Coventry

I never buy these "lazy foods". However I can see that from the view of a single person, if you want roasted vegetables for example, you need to buy a lot of different, large vegetables and either use the same ingredients all week, or end up wasting a lot. A bag of chopped mixed vegetables for this purpose seems fine to me, but a diced onion or peeled potato, really? Maybe for the elderly who struggle with their hands, but no-one else should need to resort to this. I would say that it would be the inherent laziness that is taking over, not the convenience.
Will B

I have never bought pre-cut veg and never plan to. I also avoid pre-chopped meat as well. All you need to do is learn some good knife skills and you can have all your veg for an evening meal chopped and ready in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea. In fact, when I was at uni I used to be quite proud of the fact I could prepare, cook, eat and wash up a stir-fry in under 20 minutes.
Mark, Jersey

I would no more buy ready chopped, sliced etc food than fly in the air, but I am a stay-at-home Mum and have the time to do it myself. Others haven't got this luxury. My children have been taught how to prepare food by me and they love it. I hope it will stand them in good stead for later on in life when they need to look after themselves. It's also a lot cheaper to do it yourself and the more you do it the quicker you become at it.
Jenny Abou-zeid, Strathaven, Scotland

I wonder what people actually do with all the time time they "save" with these products? Go to places where life isn't controlled by supermarkets and food multinationals and you will find food preparation is a great opportunity for families and friends to spend a little time together in a shared task. It is relaxing, practical, often cross-generational and a great way of teaching kids about food. The time is not wasted, it's enjoyed.
Adam, Wales

I have to admit to being a fan of pre-sliced/chopped onion - far easier to open a packet and pop it in the pan, than peel & slice, and wipe away tears. And as for pre sliced apple... surely it's better to pass a packet of pre-prepared fruit in a packet to a small child than a packet of crisps?
Amanda, Winsford, Cheshire

I prepared my own chicken from scratch for the first time the other weekend. My boyfriend did the deed, I plucked and gutted it. It was a delicious meal and I find you really appreciate food when you spend extra time preparing it.
Alex, Sussex

Several years ago I took my daughter and her friend to our allotments. As we left i dug up a couple of bunches of my prized organic carrots and offered one of them to my daughter's friend. With a look of absolute disgust the young girl said, "My mommy doesn't get food from the dirt! She goes to Tescos!" Still, at least she knew what a carrot was.
Doc Bob, Bristol

I've never understood the point of peeling potatoes, having been brought up being told that the skins had all the goodness in them (although it was possible this was a rouse by my mother not to have to peel them herself). Just give them a bit of a scrub under the tap. I am always frustratingly amazed, though, at just how slowly my partner can chop an onion. For him, the preparation part of cooking takes the longest, and a ready-chopped bag of something would genuinely save 10 or 20 minutes. Luckily, he has an alternative in the shape of a willing sous chef.
Martha Hampson, London

Spare a thought for those of us who are unable to prepare certain foods. A close relative of mine has severe arthritis in both hands and is unable to grip a knife or peeler in order to prepare vegetables. The rise of prepared foodstuffs in the supermarket means she is still able to make wholesome homemade dishes instead of having to resort to ready meals. She is not the only person with this condition and I am sure a percentage of sales of prepared foods would be to people with a similar disability.
Elizabeth Campbell, Hereford

I personally buy ready-prepared fruit salads or stir-fry stuff because if I buy all the ingredients needed to make my own, then I end up with five portions instead of one and throwing most of it away when it goes off two days later.
Charlotte, Birmingham

How is this different to tinned veg? Tinned peeled potatoes, processed peas, processed carrots, sweetcorn... lazy food has been around for a while. Now it just involves opening a packet rather than a tin.
Kate Jones, Lancaster, UK

My wife & I are both professionals who work long hours and will happily wash, peel & chop (and that's before we start on baking & making pasta) as we spend our quality time together with our daughter in the kitchen teaching her about food and having conversations. Sounds outlandish? Possibly not, as this is time well invested in our marriage and in raising a well-behaved child who has no issues with anything.
John, Bolton, UK

The writing was on the wall years ago when my local supermarket started selling oven-ready baked potatoes.
Deborah, Surrey

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