It has been argued that in the past few decades, too many foods have become cheaper, faster, and unhealthier with the help of biotechnology. In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity defined biotechnology as all technological applications that use living organisms, biological systems, or any by-product, to create or modify products or processes for specific use. Understandably, some consumers have argued against the use of technology in our food system, specifically convenience food, because of claims that it is not ‘natural,’ lacks care compared to fresh and homemade meals, and is a health risk to those who consume it. The argument over convenience food is not necessarily about natural vs. unnatural, but the real debate is concerned with the societal changes in modern family and work life. The current discourse of convenience foods is that of disdain because of the belief that the best way to feed one’s family is to spend the time and energy preparing meals at home. This needs to change to understand that convenience as care is a way of modern people meeting the needs of their lifestyle and family satisfaction.
What are Convenience Foods?
When one thinks of convenience foods, the first thought is typically canned, frozen, ready-made meals, and many argue, the least nutritious food for consumption. However, history has shown that the definition of convenience food shifts depending on the particular time and place in a given society. For instance, one of the many current descriptions of convenience food includes the act of eating out, buying takeaway, is labour-saving, and either processed or semi-processed (i.e., snacks and beverages) (see Figure 1). Another definition details convenience foods as anything that makes the shopping, preparation, eating, and cleaning easier by saving time and effort for an individual.
Figure 1: Takeaway food. One of the modern methods in which people purchase convenience foods
The Real Debate: Gender & Expression of Care Through Convenience Foods
The changes in current familial structures have also changed women’s domestic habits in which they have adapted how they take care of their family and home. The discourse over the moralisation of convenience foods needs to be reframed to understand that convenience foods are not inherently wrong when the needs and care of the family are taken care of through convenience items. Caring is a practice that requires time, resources, knowledge, and skill. Due to the social and cultural changes in our society, caring has become complex and often difficult for women to navigate because of a deficit in one or more of the detailed criteria and also because of women’s busy everyday lives. We need to work toward not criticising women who rely on convenience foods because convenience foods may not be as ‘natural’ or fresh as homemade items, but a level of care still goes into the decisions of women who may feel that the act of cooking is not important or the only way to take care of their families.
In the UK, 53% of women between the ages of 16 – 24 were in the labour market in 1971 compared to 67% in 2013. Interestingly, the percentage of men in the workforce has decreased from 92% in 1971 to 76% in 2013. This shift in the labour force has also meant a change in the gender roles of parents in the household. It is well known that older generations had gendered roles in which men were typically the ones with jobs and women were expected to take care of the kids and home. It has been historically shown that the act of caring and caregiving has been the responsibility of women. It was expected for the woman to show her role as a caregiver through the food prepared for the household which typically involved more time, fresh ingredients, and preparation. This preparation usually took longer compared to modern day cooking because of the rise of technologies, i.e., microwaves and fridges which did not become staple household items until the 1960s.
A study into the different lifestyles of consumers in Great Britain found that those between the ages of 55-75 had the least positive things to say about convenience foods and wholeheartedly believed that food should be made from scratch and prepared at home. The study also found that women between the ages of 45-54 and had a family at home, were the most stressed due to long work hours and were the most likely to favour convenience foods in order to save time and energy. What little time they believe they had, they felt that it was better spent on other things involving the family. These differences in sample groups show the shifts in how women have expressed their care through food over the decades. Older generations, in which domestic femininity was socially regulated through gender norms, often argue that homemade meals are the best way to show one’s care for the family. Modern women, who are still expected to live up to these gender norms, sometimes choose to express their care through convenience food items due to limitations they might have in their lives, i.e., finances, time, or lack of cooking knowledge. This act is coined as convenience as care. The moral approbation on convenience foods is too simplistic for the complex everyday social and cultural framework of many of today’s societies. Because of the way in which modern familial structure has shifted from the heteronormative structure of the past, the responsibility of care has now come to include men, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even same-sex couples.
Convenience as Care
Even though more women today have jobs compared to women of the past, there is still the expectation that the home and children are the primary responsibility of women. With the accumulation of stress from working long hours and duties at home, many women have adapted their role as caregivers by fulfilling their family’s unique food needs through convenience foods. For instance, some children are picky eaters who will only eat certain foods that cater to their specific tastes. Through the use of technology and convenience foods, parents are able to provide food for their picky eaters while also alleviating any stressors about preparing a specific meal to fit their child’s critical taste.
With the current complexities of everyday life, there should not be one absolute best way to feed one’s family. The discourse of care should not be a moral debate between good food vs. bad food or the ‘proper’ way to feed one’s family but should be about the complexities of everyday life that one constantly juggles to fit their individual and family’s needs. Each person has a lifestyle that often requires them to struggle to determine what can be traded off to make their and their family’s life easier and more enjoyable. Some women are not immediately turned off by the health concerns of convenience food because it often alleviates pressures from their daily lives through its convenience. Due to individual and familial circumstances, the use of convenience foods can be justified as a way of expressing care (convenience as care), and this decision should not be judged by those who favour the healthy or homemade way of feeding their families.