When it comes to food, my mother is very traditional. She is a fierce believer in family meals and often goes out of her way to ensure we sit down together for dinner every day and eat “proper” foods that are made from scratch. She would store fresh foods in two huge fridges and experiment new recipes almost weekly to get us to come home. I guess it’s still the norm, especially in a South-East Asian country like Vietnam, to have our women in charge of cooking and caring for the family. On social media groups and online newspapers, there is an ongoing competition between young wives who would share their daily home-cooked meals to show off their housekeeping and culinary skills.

I, on the contrary, opt for convenience food any chance I can get. My dislike toward cooking, together with a stressful work schedule and frequent late hours make instant foods and food delivery services my go-to. My life is made much easier thanks to the advent of innovations and technologies which allow for the rise of convenience food[1]. A meal can be ready within just a few minutes or after a couple of taps on my phone. It has to be said that, in this day and age, ‘convenience’ has become an increasingly important factor influencing many aspects of our food choice, including “when, where, what, how and even with whom we eat”[2][3].

Facebook page of online food delivery service in Vietnam
Facebook page of a popular online food delivery service in Vietnam

Whilst the term “convenience food” may refer to “a multitude of different food items and meal types”[4] from canned and frozen foods to ready meals, one thing remains the same, they were all produced with the aim to help minimise the amount of time and efforts that a consumer invests into meal planning, preparing, consuming and cleaning up[5][6][7].

To a certain extent, convenience food can be a way to achieve food security and to ensure that those who can’t cook or don’t have time for cooking would have adequate, even healthy choices of food to eat. Many supermarkets and mini-marts such as Big C, Lotte Mart or Circle K in Vietnam don’t just provide cheap convenience food options but also microwave and seating within the stores so that busy workers and cash-strapped students can have a quick bite on-the-go.

As mentioned above, the idea that women are responsible for feeding the family is not only predominant in an Asian country but also deeply instilled in cultures of more developed countries in the West[8][9]. In a way, convenience food such as ready meals also help downplay gender equality in that it is commercially produced and thus gender neutral, as opposed to home-made meals which are largely associated with women as cooks[10][11][12][13]. Many of my middle-aged female co-workers, despite being feminists who work for United Nations agencies, are still the main cooks in the home and would often complain about how time-consuming meal planning, cooking and eating are. They openly express the wish that such daily tasks can be reduced so that they can focus more on work as well as other aspects of their lives. Convenience food does just that and helps liberate women from the “drudgery” involved with food work[14].

Nevertheless, the use of such products is still largely accompanied by a sense of guilt[15][16]. This is due to a negative moralisation of convenience food, in which home-made foods are seen as “proper”, “decent” and “made with love”, whereas convenience foods are “inauthentic”, “counterfeit” and “cheating”[17][18][19][20][21]. The “irresolvable” opposition between ‘convenience’ and ‘care’ was also brought up to further highlight their difference[22], but in practice, the two are “routinely combined” by people using convenience food as a way of caring about and taking care of others[23]. In fact, convenience foods are very often combined with fresh/authentic foods in the daily making of home-made meals[24][25][26][27]. My mother would use prepacked cooking sauce, dried mushrooms, processed meats and cheese in some of her recipes alongside other ingredients freshly bought from the local market. No matter how popular convenience foods become, they will not be replacing homemade meals entirely[28].

Whilst convenience foods may help reduce amount of food waste because it “comes in the right quantities”[29], their packaging is often made of plastic or even Styrofoam (which is still widely used in Vietnam) which pose a lot of challenges to the environment[30]. The issue with packaging waste is significant in China within the past couple of years, with an increase of 750% from 0.2 to 1.5 million metric tonnes within a merely two-year period[31].

Volume of food delivery packaging waste in China
Volume of food delivery packaging waste in China in Song, G., Zhang, H., Duan, H., & Xu, M. (2018). Packaging waste from food delivery in China’s mega cities. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 130, 226-227.

Pricing actually varies greatly between types of convenience food, for instance, ready meals can be expensive to consume on a daily basis due to the premiums added for the purpose of saving your time and efforts[32][33][34], whereas dried, canned or frozen foods can actually be much cheaper but not at all less nutritious than fresh foods which perish quickly and require more frequent grocery trips[35][36][37][38].

A number of studies showed positive correlation between the consumption of ready meals and increased abdominal obesity in adults, and that such meals don’t quite deliver a nutritious diet[39]. However, with a little more time spent on checking the label by the consumer, as well as better labelling requirements and transparency laws, convenience food can be as healthy as home-cooked meals[40][41][42].

Convenience food, in the words of Ms Sarah Schmansky[43], is “definitely not a fad”, but “something that’s here to stay” with manufacturers focusing more and more on meeting customers’ growing demand of healthier yet still convenient foods[44]. According to Brian Wansink[45], “consumers nowadays are more informed about nutrition” and gradually turning away from unhealthy convenience foods by focusing more on cooking from scratch and looking for convenience options with fewer additives, thus moving toward a balance between convenience and healthy eating[46].

References

[1] Jackson, P., Brembeck, H., Everts, J., Fuentes, M., Halkier, B., Hertz, F.D., Meah, A., Viehoff, V. and Wenzl, C., (2018). A Short History of Convenience Food. In Reframing Convenience Food (pp. 15-38). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[2] Costa, A., Schoolmeester, D., Dekker, M., & Jongen, W. M. F. (2007). To cook or not to cook: a means-end study for motives of choice of meal solutions. Food Quality and Preference, 18, 77-88.

[3] https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2017/the-continued-evolution-of-deli-prepared-foods.html

[4] Halkier, B. (2017). Normalising convenience food? The expectable and acceptable places of convenient food in everyday life among young Danes. Food, Culture & Society, 20(1), 133-151.

[5] De Boer, M., McCarthy, M., Cowan, C., & Ryan, I. (2004). The influence of lifestyle characteristics and beliefs about convenience foods on the demand for convenience foods in the Irish market. Food Quality and Preference, 15(2), 155–165.

[6] Buckley, M., Cowan, C., & McCarthy, M. (2007). The convenience food market in Great Britain: Convenience food lifestyle (CFL) segments. Appetite, 49(3), 600-617.

[7] Brunner, T. A., Van der Horst, K., & Siegrist, M. (2010). Convenience food products. Drivers for consumption. Appetite, 55(3), 498-506.

[8] Jackson, P. and Viehoff, V. (2016). Reframing convenience food. Appetite 98, 1–11.

[9] Bugge, A. B., & Almås, R. (2010). Domestic dinner. Representations and practices of a proper meal among young suburban mothers. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(2), 203-228

[10] DeVault, M. L. (1991). Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[11] Charles, N. & Kerr, M. (1988). Women, food and families. Manchester: Manchester University Press

[12] Moisio, R., Arnould, E. J., & Price, L. L. (2004). Between mothers and markets: Constructing family

identity through homemade food. Journal of Consumer Culture, 4(3), 361-384.

[13] Allen, P., & Sachs, C. (2012). Women and food chains: The gendered politics of food. Taking food public: Redefining foodways in a changing world, 23-40.

[14] Carrigan, M., Szmigin, I., & Leek, S. (2006). Managing routine food choices in UK families: The role of convenience consumption. Appetite, 47(3), 372-383.

[15] Mintel, U. K. (2013). Prepared meals – UK – May 2013. [Online] Available at: http://store.mintel.com/prepared-meals-uk-may-2013 [Last accessed 13th December 2018]

[16] Carrigan, M., & Szmigin, I. (2006). ‘Mothers of invention’: maternal empowerment and convenience consumption. European Journal of Marketing, 40(9/10), 1122-1142

[17] Jackson, P. and Viehoff, V. (2016). Reframing convenience food. Appetite 98, 1–11.

[18] Warde, A. (1999). Convenience food: space and timing. British Food Journal, 101(7), 518-527.

[19] Szabo, M. (2011). The challenges of ‘re-engaging with food’. Connecting employment, household patterns and gender relations to convenience food consumption in North America. Food, Culture & Society, 14(4), 547-566.

[20] Meah, A., & Jackson, P. (2017). Convenience as care: Culinary antinomies in practice. Environment and Planning A, 49(9), 2065-2081.

[21] Warde, A. (1997) Consumption, Food and Taste: Culinary Antinomies and Commodity Culture. London: Sage

[22] ibid

[23] Meah, A., & Jackson, P. (2017). Convenience as care: Culinary antinomies in practice. Environment and Planning A, 49(9), 2065-2081.

[24] Halkier, B. (2013). Easy eating? Negotiating convenience food in media food practices. Making sense of consumption, 119-136.

[25] Meah, A., & Jackson, P. (2017). Convenience as care: Culinary antinomies in practice. Environment and Planning A, 49(9), 2065-2081.

[26] Carrigan, M., & Szmigin, I. (2006). ‘Mothers of invention’: maternal empowerment and convenience consumption. European Journal of Marketing, 40(9/10), 1122-1142

[27] https://blog.euromonitor.com/home-cooking-and-eating-habits-global-survey-strategic-analysis/

[28] Ana, I. D. A., Schoolmeester, D., Dekker, M., & Jongen, W. M. (2007). To cook or not to cook: a means-end study of motives for choice of meal solutions. Food quality and preference, 18(1), 77-88.

[29] Meah, A., & Jackson, P. (2017). Convenience as care: Culinary antinomies in practice. Environment and Planning A, 49(9), 2065-2081.

[30] Carrigan, M., Szmigin, I., & Leek, S. (2006). Managing routine food choices in UK families: The role of convenience consumption. Appetite, 47(3), 372-383.

[31] Song, G., Zhang, H., Duan, H., & Xu, M. (2018). Packaging waste from food delivery in China’s mega cities. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 130, 226-227.

[32] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/may/19/foodanddrink.uk

[33] https://blog.euromonitor.com/home-cooking-and-eating-habits-global-survey-strategic-analysis/

[34] https://www.cbsnews.com/media/5-precut-foods-and-how-much-more-they-cost-you/

[35] Carrigan, M., Szmigin, I., & Leek, S. (2006). Managing routine food choices in UK families: The role of convenience consumption. Appetite, 47(3), 372-383.

[36] Rickman, J. C., Barrett, D. M., & Bruhn, C. M. (2007). Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 87(6), 930-944.

[37] Bouzari, A., Holstege, D., & Barrett, D. M. (2015). Vitamin retention in eight fruits and vegetables: a comparison of refrigerated and frozen storage. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 63(3), 957-962.

[38] Bouzari, A., Holstege, D., & Barrett, D. M. (2015). Mineral, fiber, and total phenolic retention in eight fruits and vegetables: a comparison of refrigerated and frozen storage. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 63(3), 951-956.

[39] Alkerwi, A. A., Crichton, G. E., & Hébert, J. R. (2015). Consumption of ready-made meals and increased risk of obesity: findings from the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg (ORISCAV-LUX) study. British Journal of Nutrition, 113(2), 270-277.

[40] Stranieri, S., Ricci, E. C., & Banterle, A. (2017). Convenience food with environmentally-sustainable attributes: A consumer perspective. Appetite116, 11-20.

[41] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7222397.stm

[42] https://www.grocerydive.com/news/grocery–easy-eating-convenience-foods-are-vital-in-an-on-the-go-world/534501/

[43] Director, Nielsen’s Fresh Growth & Strategy team

[44] https://www.grocerydive.com/news/grocery–easy-eating-convenience-foods-are-vital-in-an-on-the-go-world/534501/

[45] Director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of “Slim by Design (Mindless Eating Solutions for Every Day Life)”

[46] https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/how-we-eat-the-rise-of-the-convenience-food-market-1.1967791