This is genuine curiosity, as I grew up in a region where the average income was much lower than the USA, but the food consumed by lower-income individuals was much healthier and fresher. We'd eat things like red beans and rice, curries, acar (a type of spiced pickle) and often cook meat over wood fires to save money on gas for the oven.
2) Taste. To us adults (and mostly upper-middle class adults to boot) on HN, rice and beans may sound more appealing than cheap mac and cheese with mystery meat. Take a poll of 3-year-olds and you may get a different result.
3) Ease. Staples like rice and beans are only really cheap when you're buying them in dry form, bulk. This means you need to season them and cook them, which can be a long process. (My wife and I recently tried to save on black beans by cooking ourselves rather than buying canned. The result was good, but by the time you chop onions for seasoning, add other ingredients, monitor the beans, drain and cool the beans, and wash the crock pot, cutting board, knife, various spoons and measuring implements, etc., well, it ends up being a lot of work.) If you're a single parent working two jobs to support your kids, 5 minutes of preparation is meaningfully better than even, say, 20 minutes of preparation.
I don't know. You make it sound as if it were difficult to cook these staples. During my college years these were the easiest things to cook, along with pasta and tomato sauce. Basically it was just a matter of filling the pot with water, dropping the ingredients and then just wait.
Similarly with tomato sauce, add the ingredients in a pot and just wait.
One cannot merely put the ingredients of tomato sauce into a pot, heat it in some arbitrary way, and expect the result to be recognizable as tomato sauce.
That's literally the description of a famous tomato sauce. You can add a cup or two of water and a pound of pasta to the same pot at some indeterminate time towards the end of the process.
Feel free to argue that arbitrarily heating it may involve burning it. Whatever. Pasta with tomato sauce is ridiculously easy.
I don't mean this to be a larger statement on the economics / logistics / choices / what have you of being in poverty.
1-Slice 3 to 5 tomatoes
2-Slice 1 to 2 portobello mushrooms.
3-Add olive oil to pan
4-Add ingredients to pan
5-Add salt to your liking.
7-Let it cook in a slow fire, no need to stir. Usually takes around 20 to 30 minutes. You can stir at the end to mix the sauce a bit.
-Use this sauce to top your pasta (pasta al dente is the best). Also add some Feta cheese.
p.s. I guess it would be more correct to call it chunky tomato sauce.
As for "failure modes" you can make things more consistent by boiling the water in a kettle before adding it to the rice. You really can't go wrong this way.
But yeah, I agree with the actual points you’re making. I also think a lot of people in the US literally don’t know how to cook.
I've had college graduate friends who didn't know how to make a basic (what we've got on-hand) stir fry.
Depends on how the 3 year old was raised. I'm in my 30's, along with my brother, and my parents fed us what they ate. My mother cooked most of the week and weekends we would do takeout or the occasional restaurant visit. We were given portions from our parents meal and sometimes an extra side or appetizer. When old enough I got to pick my own meal which was never a kids meal of junk like mac n cheese or hot dogs. I wanted the good stuff like rack of lamb, steamed lobster with drawn butter, prime rib medium rare, fresh mashed potatoes, whole vegetables, etc. The good things my parents ate and shared with us. Sure there was junk food around, but it was kept to a minimum. The friends who became obese had parents who let them drink soda while feeding them deep fried frozen chicken, boxed mac n cheese, and a cupboard full of cookies, candies and other fattening snacks. Some are still morbidly obese to this day.
Personally, I'm not even trying to deceive myself any longer - to me, fast food usually does taste better than most regular food. Based on taste alone, I'd much prefer to go to McDonalds than a typical restaurant. I don't do that because of a conscious choice based on health concerns.
Also, cut out as much added sugar from your diet as possible. No sweet coffee, tea, drinks, soda pop, fruit juice and of course confectioneries and other sweet treats and candies. I was somewhat overweight because I liked eating too much good food along with sugar. Now I'm lean and thin after a year of slowly cutting out sugar. If I have any sugar it comes from fresh fruit. This also had the side effect of lowering my intake and craving of other carbs like breads from greasy sandwiches and pizza. I also feel less hungry and east less as sugar and carbs cause you to overeat.
As to cooking beans, I do it all the time, and it's easy. Buy a couple of one-pound packs, sort for stones, dump in a pot with excess water, bring to boil, cook a pre-set time, dump into a collendar to drain off the excess, let set a bit to cool. Put in two zip-lock bags and put one in the refrigerator, one in the freezer, wash the collendar. A child could do it. Yeah, it takes time, but it's not like you have to sit there watching the pot the whole time you are cooking it. And you have beans for a week.
Your argument about marketing is more to the point.
Part 1 being often these "junk" processed foods are cheaper to buy for more quantity. eg. a box of macaroni and cheese can feed a family of 4 on $2USD. Possibly mix in a couple hotdogs which on the cheaper end can cost under $5USD for 16. in the end your feeding a family of 4 dinner for under $5.
Part 2 being time. Typically in lower income families (I grew up on the low end of the "middle class") both parents are working. my mother didn't have the time or energy to come home from and 8-10 hour work day and then cook for the next 90 minutes. that same box of macaroni and cheese (with hotdogs) can be made in ~30 minutes with little attention to it. and once my sister and I were old enough to help out, it was something we could do for her.
Thats my anecdotal and oversimplified answer anyway :)
I really don't think so. All the statistics we have point to poor people having more, often much more, free time than middle class people or rich people.
Thirteen year old children can also be taught to cook and prep reliably, as I'm sure you know.
Part 2 is probably more likely a basket of cultural issues. Sampling my middle income and lower friends, almost none of their parents taught them a thing about cooking. (Those that did of the very poor had 13 year olds cooking.)
I have seen a total lack of interest in cooking and a total lack of planning. It takes essentially zero time to soak beans overnight, and no time to simmer them in a pot with olive oil or butter or anything else you have (carrot water/cabbage water/stubs of vegetables if-you-have-any water). Many times a week I make beans and scrambled eggs this way.
No it doesn't. Be realistic. Beans are going to take about 90 minutes to cook tender. Soaking beans takes pre-planning the night before. It is not low-effort cooking.
You are probably right that there is a lack of planning, and probably poor decisions being made in these households, but I'd suggest volunteering your time to go teach these people how to sort their lives out, and perhaps you'll find it's not as simple as beans and rice.
Outside of the USA you have plenty of families surviving on less than $10 a day, they don't wait for their paycheck to accumulate to buy food.
It sounds more like a cultural issue, or perhaps such staples are not easily found in most of the USA and/or are marketed as "health foods" and suffer a corresponding price increase?
Culture definitely sounds like a component, I wouldn't be surprised to hear a crass criticism of your rice-and-beans meal as something eaten by "those starving children on TV."
There's also the issue that a lot of folks simply don't know how to cook. The benefit of a lot of those box meals is the hand-holding, instructions included nature. I buy a box, it tells me what I need to buy, and how and how long to cook each component.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit, but if you handed me a sack of rice and beans I'd have no idea how and for how long to cook it. I simply never learned those skills. In the past several months I've realized how poor my culinary skills are, and have been working to address that deficiency, but for many folks in the US we simply pick the path of least cost and effort.
I think this is the "Part 3" to the list above. Rices/beans/potatoes can yield many, many different dishes. I can afford more expensive choices, but most of my meals still consist of these basic, cheap foods.
You can do a big batch of this and then later get fancy by throwing it around a frying pan, maybe add eggs and spices, and still be below $1 / meal.
Sure, but how long? How much salt? How much water? How big of a pot? Do I put them both in together? Separate? What kinds of spices? How much of each?
Ultimately, I can just toss 'em in and wing it or go Google it real quick but most folks just don't even get past the part of realizing "Oh hey, I don't have to do the same thing I've done for years." Most folks don't question their day-to-day rudimentary tasks, especially when they don't have to.
Having "broken" from the rut, it's rather amazing how complacent we can get.
Like hearing myself arguing with my SO.
- "Can you cook some pasta before I come home?"
- "Sure honey, but which one? How long? How much salt? How much water? Which pot?..."
Ok, I figured that one out eventually (definitely with the help of some instructions on a box, but they're often not reliable; first pasta I made I boiled longer than the manual said, and it still came out al dente). But the point is, cooking has ridiculous amounts of complexity hidden in it, including quite a lot that can be only be understood through trial and error.
I'd argue this is the most common case of technical communication problem between humans. My SO asking me to "just" cook a "simple" dish would be like me telling her to "just" make a "simple" JS gallery page. In both cases, we'll eventually figure this out, but it will involve lots of googling and stress.
As I think about it more, it really reminds me first getting into functional programming. These simple, primitive concepts appeared so daunting at first but once you get accustomed to the mentality and lose that initial fear you can turn those primitives into complex, beautiful software.
When I moved to the US, I was appealed by the price of vegetables. Carrots, beets, cabbage are all so expensive compared to Western/Eastern europe.
Carrots and cabbages are about the cheapest vegetables in the store. It doesn't even make a scratch in the bankroll.
Bell peppers, now that's another story.
Here's a study of how (among other things) longer-acculturated immigrants to the US shift their eating toward convenience foods:
Study results corroborate previous research highlighting the negative impact of acculturation on diet of Latinos. Many mothers described ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their native countries, although availability of such foods decreased in the U.S.. Mothers further described how their lives had become increasingly busy and complex, leaving little time for preparing foods, thereby making the allure of convenience foods, often which are unhealthy, more appealing.
This study details the experiences of Latino families. A quick literature skim and anecdata from my own life indicate that it happens with other immigrant groups coming to the US.
Some low-income subgroups of the American population continue to prepare food from scratch. When I was growing up, some of my friends came from low-income fundamentalist Christian families. Fast/convenience foods were a rare treat; the typical meal plan was "find what ingredients are on sale or have good coupons this week, cook meals from them." (Also, stockpile ingredients that keep well at the lowest-cost times of the year. Buy 6 bargain turkeys around Thanksgiving.) This seems to hold regardless of specific belief; I've heard similar stories from friends who grew up in strict Mormon or Orthodox Jewish households.
Later in graduate school I noticed that students also did more of their own cooking than you might expect from their age and income level (ranging from "nonexistent" to "just above poverty line.") I certainly cooked. It would have torpedoed my budget to eat boxed dinners or fast food every day.
Maybe deep religious belief and extended education are also, in different ways, factors that make you less acculturated into the American mainstream. The irreligious recent immigrant from Belarus, the pious Catholic, and the chemistry postdoc may all be less likely to follow the American default dietary practices because they're living further from American defaults to begin with.
Another factor I've noticed is that these low-income households that cook their own meals (and otherwise make long term cost-effective decisions) tend to be low-income but stable-income. If you're on a graduate school stipend or have taken out loans, you don't have a lot of buying power but you're not juggling two jobs or wondering how many hours you'll be scheduled for this week. Likewise, in those low-income religious families where I saw meals planned around costs, they didn't have much buying power per household member but income was steady month-to-month. If you don't have a modicum of stability you can't be sure that "invest in a chest freezer, buy meat in bulk during the best sales" is actually a good financial optimization plan.
I think a lot of it has to do with availability. People in poverty are typically less well served by large grocery stores, and are more likely to shop in convenience stores. Convenience stores are less like to stock low margin products like bulk rice and dried beans, and more likely to stock higher margin processed foods.
I'm not an expert though, could be many factors.
I know, because I cook/eat a lot of rice and beans. I have add a lot of fruits etc in between meals to feel good. The dirt cheap vegetarian foods people tend to suggest are not really foods you would eat long term without feeling hungry and tired a lot. With that in mind, I can see someone whose life generally sux to at least eat food that makes them less miserable.
Also, mac&cheese is quick cooking and beans are not when you cook them.
It also has other health benefits: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/94/3/869/4411867
As in, it is ok lunch, but I am hunger in shorter time then with meat or say mac&cheese. Importantly, when I try to eat only that for 2-3 days, it does not work at all.
It's fresh fruit and veggies that you will tend to see the least of in c-stores.
People experiencing low income in the US aren't generally just low on money. They're also low on time, energy, and often infrastructure. It's hard to buy staples in bulk and cook healthy meals with them when you don't have the time required or a place where you can reliably and safely store the staples.
And, at this point, a lot of it is cultural. Not all people value healthy food.
Also (and this is probably an "insensitive" opinion) yes, sometimes people really are too stressed and busy to properly prepare food. Other times (perhaps more frequently) they are just too lazy.
Then convince someone that they need to spend an hour cooking healthier foods that requires more effort for most likely no benefit. Being in that position, I thought that a lot. It was easier to get McDonalds and then sit down in front of the TV/Computer and distract myself from the problems.
I think the problem isn't that people are lazy, that's a symptom of the real causes: anxiety, depression, and their ilk; from being in a situation that makes it all too easy to nest inside of and accept.
1- Because they're stereotypes? Because nobody actually understands how people eat. Poor Americans eat rice and oats and beans, but those aren't stereotypical American. Ask yourself, is rice an American food? Do you imagine Americans eating it? I'm sure poor Asian Americans and Latinxs are. Do you think about poor people in Louisiana sustenance hunting/fishing? The US has an image, and that influences what people show/are willing to see.
2- Food Deserts. The US has large urban populations where the vast majority of the food available is canned/prepared. You can't cook over an open fire in a city because of regulations. You might live in a high rise apartment where you can't really cook much of anything because of the lack of space available. In those types of situations, it's easier to get a 1 dollar cheeseburger from a restaurant to meet your immediate food needs than try to buy a 20 LB bag of rice, carry it through downtown, and then store it in your living room.
3-When you're dealing with food, most people's immediate desire is calories. Your body is stupid, and when it has nutritional needs it often expresses them as just blanket hunger. People are able to get cheap calories in the US, but many of them are nutritionally minimal.
4- Relative value of money. You grew up somewhere that was poorer than the US, but there was likely deflation of the price of goods consummate with that. Poor in the US is not the same as poor in China or poor in the Sudan. They each come with their own special flavors of terrible options available to you.
Instead you buy a microwaveable rice dish. It's about the same cost as actual rice (just a bit more expensive), far quicker to cook, tastes better than unseasoned undercooked rice, and is usually pretty unhealthy.
When it comes to spoilable things like meat, it's difficult to know ahead of time when you'll be able to cook a proper dinner and therefore plan your purchases. You might well end up just catching a burger at a fast food place and never get a chance to cook the $8 of meat you bought.
Now I'm in a place where I cook all my meals. I can go to the store twice a week and buy nice cuts of steak or chicken. I can take two hours to make a fancy meal. I have no shortage of things to season with (imported oil, foreign spices, etc). I eat much better now for less total cost, but I have more upfront costs and much more time invested.
This sounds like it was written by an alien trying to reason about poverty from first principles. I've been poor. Nothing prevented me from buying big bags of rice. I wouldn't have had any trouble keeping insects out of that bag. And, despite myths about the noble, ever-working poor man, I had more than enough time to cook it.
I mostly bought shit food because I liked eating shit food. There's no reason to imagine further impediments. That one's sufficient.
I didn't lack time to do cooking because I was working constantly. I lacked time to do cooking because my work schedule was all over the place and the buses in the DC metro area are never on time. Between working and trying to get classes in (or working a second job, or watching your kid) you don't really have time to watch rice cook for an hour.
I'm sorry my experience growing up poor as dirt doesn't align with your preference for eating shitty food. Obviously I'm the one in the wrong here.
When you grow up in the suburbs and your friends get brand new clothes every month when they get taken shopping, and you're lucky to get 2 new sets of clothes at the start of the school year, you feel poor. And the kid who grew up in a homeless shelter thinks you both sound rich.
Poor does different things to different people because poor is always relative. I was "poor" in NJ working in restaurants in my 20's and I never cooked at home because I worked 12-14 hour days. I still paid my rent, put gas in my car, and had money to buy drugs after it all. If I told someone who couldn't feed their kids what I was doing, they'd have looked at me like I was the biggest wastrel in the world. But when all I could see was the rich people rolling into the dining room day after day, I couldn't help but feel like I was at the very bottom of everything.
What you went through sounds terrible. And saying that it's just because you're lazy or stupid or "weren't being poor right" doesn't fix anything but just acts as a way to explain someone else's feelings/opinions. I wish you luck fellow human, because none of this is easy.
Indeed! My dismissiveness comes from repeated encounters with well-meaning, well-off liberals who seemingly cannot find a single behavior they aren't willing to excuse on the basis of poverty, until they've by degrees whittled the poor down to automaton-like slugs in their minds, useless dependents, capable of nothing, completely lacking in agency.
I've been poor. I could make rice.
If the person I'm responding to's experience was different, I take them at their word.
It isn't empathetic or helpful to treat a group of people as though they have no control over their own lives.
IMO, it was an imperfect class for a number of reasons but the idea is a good one.
To quote from
Fresh food […] takes forever to prepare.
Rice, for instance, takes about half an hour to make. If you’re poor, you most likely work all the time, and are constantly tired. No way are you going to waste half a hour to make rice (just plain rice!), when you can get something much more tasty and almost as cheap which takes five minutes at most to make?
> We'd […] often cook meat over wood fires to save money on gas for the oven.
That is not a possibility in urban environments.
Two things this affords.
1. Massive automation, so more profits can flow to less people
2. Far more calories can be packed into processed food than what is natural. But it's far less nutritious. Your body can't handle it and that's why there's so many fat kids and fat Americans.
While it's true that a lot of processed food is sweetened, if you look at the caloric density of traditional staples, it's usually pretty high. No one would have planted those crops otherwise.
One thing I have observed with simple staple dishes (like beans and rice) is that if you don't know how to add fat, salt, and spices in good proportion you can end up not liking the the result. You end up resorting to convenience foods instead and shoot yourself in the foot health-wise, as an unintuitive result of not using enough fat and salt in your cooking.
My upbringing would be considered strangely quaint by most here on HN, I believe. When I was in high school, there was still a home economics teacher. The class was elective.
The school also had a very formidable wrestling team, and the home ec teacher was the mother of a former student that had gone to a Big 10 university on a wrestling scholarship, so she new the life, and the health impacts of the constant struggle to make weight while doing strenuous physical activity.
She went out of her way to recruit wrestlers to her food & nutrition class. Argument 1: I promise cooking labs will be on meet days (you weighed in at 7:00 AM and could eat all you wanted the rest of meet day). Argument 2: Lots of girls in class. (She was a natural salesperson, this pitch was a great closer).
Along the way she taught a lot about nutrition, health, and meal planning. The homeworks were hard and meaningful -- I remember these half-starved guys obsessing over their menus, calorie counts, and nutrition analysis when by rights they should have been doing algebra. She was a wise and wonderful teacher.
Where do kids learn to cook and meal plan any more? From parents who don't know how to cook or meal plan? There are certainly foodies around, but obsessing over baking your home-made biscotti is not the same as managing the family's daily nutrition on a budget.
Eating is just as cultural as the food itself. Rice and pork are both staples in Asian and Mexico, but the way the meals are prepared and served are so completely different because of a range of influences.
Why do people in the US eat the way we do? A combination of having a massive number of people living in our country, the ability to produce an enormous amount of food (especially meat), a larger GDP than anywhere else and a culture that's always trying to do things quickly/while on the go.
The culture is complex and the reasons are many, but people not learning to cook while also having specific expectations of what food should be is definitely a large part of the equation here.
4. Marketing / Branding, you can market packaged food and build a valuable brand. Hard to do that with fresh produce since you can't really control the supply.
Lower income obesity can be linked to the quality of the food, but OP asking why the US seems more interested in processed packaged food vs "simple staples" that other countries cook. The answer there is availability and cultural perceptions (both of what the people should be eating, and of what the observer thinks the people in that culture are eating)
GI Info from ADA: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat...
GI info: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glyce...
Lentil Macros: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/macro-organic-gre...
Black Bean Macros: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/publix-dried-blac...
After I moved out, I was working in restaurants and wasn't making much by American standards, but I could make myself food that wasn't poor people food.
This stuff clings to you. Some people fight it, refusing to go back. Other people remember the little comfort they were able to get from the foods of their childhood.
Food is so fundamental to life in so many different ways. It's about being cared for. It's about showing someone else you care. It's about literally providing life to another human. There's so many strange cultural hang ups about what it should and shouldn't be. It's used as a way to identify people who don't belong to your group, to shame "the other" or to try and fit in when you don't feel comfortable. People convinced that there are right and wrong choices.
The struggle is real for some people and we just don't know how much it hurts us years later. Even today whenever I have access to cereals other than the cheapest kind I have this uncomfortable feeling like I shouldn't eat something that expensive.
I don't want to get into what I ate as a child. Too crazy.
But I was for sure poor as a young adult in the US. So we ate lots of rice, beans, and whatever veggies were discounted or ready to trash. And for additional protein, eggs and beef heart.
The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor
#5 You Develop a Taste for Shitty Food
I've done a full 180, and now I'm the pretentious hipster who refers to it as "Elbow macaroni with bechamel sauce".
For me this is the only kind I would put on pancakes.
I was lucky with food, though. While my parents would stock up how they could, we lived in an agricultural community and there was plenty of fresh vegetables around. My mother also grew them in the back and we learned young to love raw, fresh vegetables instead of eating [too much] candy or other stuff. Even when we did have something like boxed mac and cheese, there was almost always broccoli in it. We didn't get a lot of meat, let alone good meat, and to this day I suffer a B12 deficiency partly for it, but I still love getting my fresh greens, raw or cooked. Lucky that way.
The last time I had it done was a couple of years ago and it was noted that I had low hemoglobin as a result of low B12/Iron. My doc suggested I eat more red meat and take a supplement. I never used to be able to afford much in the way of beef so I got my protein through other means. Anemia runs in my family, so it may be related to that—though I'm not anemic myself.
I wonder if the inspiration for these menu items came from similar recipes in low income areas? E.g. the prison burrito might have derived from "hot cheetos". Mostly, recipes born out of a desire for fancier food with limited ingredient choices / availability in food banks / nonperishables