Outsourcing cooking

The other day I saw an ad for mashed potatoes. A tired looking woman was slashing wildly at a potato with a peeler, holding it awkwardly, well away from her body, as if it were really a knife, or a samurai fencing sword. There was a big pile of potato peels in front of her, which was surprising since she had only peeled half a potato.

The voice-over talked about how much easier it is to buy ready-to-eat mashed potatoes. You just buy them and microwave them and they’re ready to eat!

I was horrified. Making mashed potatoes is about as difficult as cooking rice. If you are going to microwave the store bought stuff anyway, why not microwave the potatoes instead?

I am amazed that such products sell. What benefit do they offer? Take these readymade mashed potatoes. The time spent is probably the same, or maybe a couple of minutes saved on the peeling, but the readymade stuff comes with added preservatives and possibly other chemicals. Plus, it’s much less eco-friendly, what with the added energy that goes into transportation, packaging and marketing the product. There are other casualties like taste and the satisfaction (even joy) of creating a dish from scratch.

But people do buy mashed potatoes and hash browns from the supermarket. They also buy frozen waffles and pancakes, even though these things can be made in minutes, about the same time as defrosting and heating a frozen one. The list is long, and includes such wonders as ready-to-eat pasta salad and macaroni and cheese.

I am not suggesting that every dish should be made from scratch. I can see how some processed food can be convenient and save time and effort, and be a great help when you are harried and tired.

But when we start outsourcing our cooking, where do we draw the line? If outsourcing some cooking is good, does it mean that outsourcing all cooking is better?


15 thoughts on “Outsourcing cooking

  1. I had the exact same reaction to the exact same ad. If peeling potatoes is that big a hassle, just mash them with the skins on! You could probably get a 8 lb bag of potatoes for the price of the advertised ones.

    I completely agree 🙂

  2. LOL… you have questioned the existance of the entire “Ready to Eat” food industry 😀

    No, but a lot of it 🙂 I certainly see no value in ready to eat mashed potatoes and hash browns 🙂

  3. “But when we start outsourcing our cooking, where do we draw the line?”
    Simple: at the grocery store! The market can be irrational for the short term, but in the long run, products that don’t provide value for money will run out of business.

    That’s true, but marketers seem to be, at some level, perpetuating the myth that even basic cooking is hard or time-consuming, so consumers may not always know they aren’t getting value. But you’re right, this recession is going to force a lot of people to learn cooking.

  4. These ads lack targeting. If only they targeted the pressed-for-time, topsy-turvy existence of bachelor/rettes like us, they would be better accepted. Gee…but even we boil and mash our potatoes for the ‘parantha’ lunch 😀

    I was thinking pressed-for-time, working-two-jobs people too, but there’s no saving in time either 🙂 Unless they’re also have-no-idea-how-to-boil-potatoes people 😀

  5. Lekhni

    When one has built in the costs of time and effort that goes in to make things from scratch, the low prices that processed foods sell for become even more attractive. It is pure economics for most people; for others it is a lack of skills and willingness to learn (I have lost count of how many ‘modern’ people I know who proudly proclaim they cannot even boil an egg properly).

    The other thing is dire poverty, not just of time. Most cooking from scratch requires planning and advance purchase. When people get paid per day, they buy and eat per day. But that is an argument useful in countries like the UK where a person’s shopping basket is not unusual if 2 or 3 things are seen in it, not in the US where everyone seems to be shopping for apocalypse with shopping trolleys to rival Mont Blanc.

    To each, his own or in other words, some people do have a different kind of life than some of us do, no? Just as to some, it is equally alien than some of us spend all this time blogging and discussing matters with totally strange people on our or their blogs 🙂

    On the other hand, there is also the time taken to drive 10 miles to the nearest grocery store – after all, ready-to-eat mashed potatoes will run out a lot faster than that 20 lb bag of potatoes.

    My point is that, economics-wise, it doesn’t make sense any way you look at it. Now, inability to cook could well be the reason. But I am horrified, again, that anyone would think not knowing a skill, any skill, can be something to be proud of 😦

  6. Girds loins, checks his attack-vest is tightly fitted, dons helmet – and gets ready for some flak.

    As much as I prefer – and like – to cook from scratch, there are times when the ready alternatives do make sense. Like for parties. So yes, I’ve used readymade mashed potatoes (although the type you get is different – you just add boiled water to these flakes and seasoning – so far quicker), and I’ve eaten frozen waffles. Because it was quicker than making it from scratch.

    That said, they’re always only going to be alternatives.

    Actually, I’ve even tried frozen waffles – and they are not really quicker than making them from scratch 😦 Plus, frozen waffles exist in only 2 states – soggy or hard.

    Maybe you should try using ready-to-eat pancake/ waffle mix (that might save a few minutes). It will take 2 minutes to make a waffle, you can add blueberries or whatever you want, and it is much softer and tastier.

  7. Lekhni

    You mean people are still driving to get groceries? 😉 I order nearly everything on-line and can set the time to the nearest hour for delivery up to 11pm. Even organic veggies and fruit – mostly local produce – now can come to our doorstep. But as I said, it is probably American exceptionalism at work again.

    The economics unfortunately does stack in favour of processed foods. See Marion Nestle’s work in this area.

    As for someone being proud of being unskilled, I think that is more prevalent than we think. How else would one explain the 16-25 year old NEETs in the UK? They are so prevalent we have a term for them!

    *NEET – not in education, employment or training

    Strangely, online grocery shopping is not a major industry in the US! There are a few companies who deliver, but most people drive to the grocery shops.

    I hadn’t heard of NEETs! I guess as societies get wealthier and unemployment benefits get better, there is less of an incentive to work. But it’s a cycle – if enough people do this, they will have to bring in labor from outside, or outsource work, either way driving down wages. The irony is that people think they can have their cake and eat it too..

  8. Time for some MBA speak. Stick to ur core competency. Specialize few menus that u realy like and outsource the rest. 🙂

    I agree! But doesn’t outsourcing only make sense when someone else can make it cheaper/ of better quality/ the product is not a critical component? 🙂

  9. This is a nice post. I see this happen a lot in the west. People want their lifestyle more than anything. To them cooking is more like an everyday chore or hassle, while relaxing is something they want to do in the jacuzzi. Cooking can be as much relaxing to the mind as anything else and when you cook from scratch it feels great. Granted, there are times when you need food fast, but still even for these occasions there are stuff that can be made quick from the scratch without relying on ready made or frozen food. As you said they are not healthy and not eco-friendly. BTW, a Samurai sword is not held away from the body, but is held as a part of the body, as an extension of your arm (saw that on a TV show).

    That’s true, it’s mostly a mindset issue.
    I didn’t know that about the samurai sword, thanks 🙂 I meant more like fencing.

  10. Lekhni

    I think the large distances probably stymie deliveries of online groceries in America. Britain is minuscule so it is easier. You remember Peapod? They almost went bust then someone (don’t recall who) bought them..

    On NEETs and cyclicality: I agree. Although about the cake, I am tempted to ask – are they baking the cake from scratch, making it from Betty Crocker mix or buying it from the supermarket? 😉

    As for outsourcing – people can only outsource those processes that they know how to measure and manage. Otherwise managing the outsourcer is an unqualified nightmare too.

    Yes, if gas prices remained consistently above $4 or $5/ gallon, then it would make sense for people to order online and pay extra for home delivery. Not now, when it’s less than $2/ gallon again.

    On the cake, given that, by definition, they have no skills, baking is out, has to be buying 😛

  11. I was equally amazed when I saw packets of cut vegetables like cauliflower, peas etc etc were being sold in Pune. The assortment was for pulao cooking. I have always seen my mom and all other aunties cut vegetables themselves and cook. So I was amazed.

    I must confess- I have used frozen, cut veggies many times 🙂 Not cauliflower, but diced okra and green beans which take 20- 30 minutes to cut.

  12. haha hear hear

    everything and anything sells in america. billy may earns his bread and butter doing that. 😀

    I am waiting for cooked rice next 😉

  13. hmmm. good post and good comments.
    I think, the theme of Mashed Potatoes aptly symbolises all such simple-to-cook food items I see here in the food stores in Japan as well… and sigh, ” I sould have brought my Mom and the cooking bai along with me here… she would have made a wonderful business with no big deal..” But then, thinking over the packing, preservatives, quality norms.. it would have costed an enormous deal of efforts just to sell it in packed condition.” I am still amazed how these MBAs get off such ideas to their head honchos and attract sponsorships from investment firms. No wonder, it will sell at Indian foodmalls in recent future. The uncontrolled, price fluctuations of the retail potato business versus the stable, controllable, wholesale buy-in-lot smashed potato one, maybe… Possibly, it is more of creating new markets rather than beating around the bush of discovering existing ones leading to yet another merry-go-round of this fashionable modern materialistic world..

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