Our society has become addicted to convenience in general and convenience food in particular. But is it really as convenient as it seems? Let’s look at products such as Tuna Helper™, Hamburger Helper™, and Chicken Helper™. Open a can of tuna or cook some hamburger or chicken and everything else you need is in the box.
When you buy complete meal in a box, you are buying a lot of packaging, which you must discard. Meanwhile, our landfills are filling up. Incinerators inevitably contribute to air pollution. It’s not sustainable. The best way to help solve our solid waste problem is not to buy a bunch of stuff you’ll just throw out.
What’s more, you’re paying for all the people who make and transport the boxes and what goes in them. And the packaging that gets the individual boxes from the factory to the warehouse to your store. And the salaries of all the executives and support staff that oversee the manufacturing process. Oh, and let’s not forget advertising and marketing.
And another thing: when you buy prepared meals, you are probably getting a lot of preservatives, a lot of salt, and so on. It is hard to control the seasoning. Too much or too little of that packet, and the food doesn’t taste very good.
Cooking from scratch instead of fixing a meal from a box costs less. And it doesn’t take any longer or more pans, either. Noodles in a box with a seasoning packet take just as long to cook as plain noodles. And if you’re starting with hamburger, it still takes time to cook that.
Some preliminary thoughts
In the following recipes, I don’t suggest many measurements. I have no idea how many people you’re cooking for. I understand the instructions in one important early cookbook were usually something like “Add enough butter (or whatever), but not too much.”
If you’ve never cooked before, count a can of tuna as about two servings. Expect to get at least five servings from a pound of hamburger. Oe maybe about a third of a cup of chicken chunks per serving.
And don’t buy already-cut chicken. That’s just another inconvenient convenience food.
Get some boneless chicken breasts, bake them for an hour at 350º and cut them yourself. That way, you get to choose the size of the pieces. To my taste, all the store-bought cut chicken is larger than bite-size. Freeze what you don’t use right away. It’s ready for anything else you want cut chicken for.
Quick and tasty tuna meals
All the various flavors of Tuna Helper amount to variations on tuna and noodles, mostly with some kind of cheese sauce and various dehydrated vegetables. You can start yours with any variation of an ordinary white sauce. That gives you a wide variety of cheese sauces, if that’s what you want. Or how about curry? And/or fresh mushrooms? You can vary the richness and calories by using anything from skim milk to heavy cream.
You can cook any kind, and any combination, of fresh or frozen vegetables you like. And why limit yourself to noodles or pasta? Use rice or quinoa or other grain. Or serve it over mashed potatoes, toast, or biscuits.
In all this, you probably haven’t used any more pans than you’d need for the stuff from the box. It’s a true convenience food.
If you want something a little fancier, put it all in a casserole dish. Combine dried breadcrumbs with a little melted butter and put them on top of everything. Or use croutons instead. Bake uncovered at 350º for half an hour or so.
Quick and tasty hamburger meals
Hamburger Helper is likewise largely combined with some kind of pasta. You can use all the same suggestions as for tuna, just use browned hamburger instead. Drain off the fat. You might want to add some chopped onion, chopped green pepper, chopped celery, and/or minced garlic as you cook the meat.
Here are a couple more ideas for something similar to the meals that come in a box:
- Brown the meat along with whatever vegetables, herbs, and spices you want. You can use chili powder for a Mexican flavor, or Italian spices, or curry powder. Make sure to include fresh or canned tomatoes, whatever else you use. This one needs some liquid. While the meat and vegetables cook, cook some noodles, macaroni, or other pasta. Drain the pasta and stir it into the skillet. Let everything simmer for a while so the pasta will absorb the flavors.
- Instead of cooking the pasta, add uncooked macaroni or other pasta to the meat mixture and some tomato juice—about three times as much tomato juice as pasta. Cover the skillet and simmer it for about 20 minutes.
- Instead of pasta, cook some rice or other grain and add it as above. Or you can add uncooked rice to the second suggestion. Anything but white rice or quinoa will take longer to cook.
- Make some mashed potatoes—or shred some potatoes in a food processor and cook them. Press the potatoes into a pie pan, sort of like a thick pie crust. Add the meat mixture and top it all with shredded cheese. Bake uncovered at 350º for half an hour or so.
Hamburger Helper offers Beef Stroganoff in a box. Making it yourself takes longer to describe, but not any longer to make than any of the other variants.
- Sauté some mushrooms, onions, and garlic and remove from the skillet.
- Then brown the meat in the same skillet. For better Stroganoff, cut some sirloin steak into thin slices and sauté it. But if you want convenience food, stick to hamburger.
- Add beef broth and Worcestershire sauce and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes.
- Add some more beef broth to flour to make a thickener. (If you used a cup of broth before, add about half a cup to a quarter cup of flour). Pour it into boiling broth and stir till it’s smooth.
- Add the vegetables and thickened broth to the skillet. Stir and boil for about a minute.
- Then turn the heat off and stir in some sour cream. When the sour cream is hot, serve it all over noodles.
I haven’t tried to describe everything. Hamburger Helper comes in lasagna or enchilada flavors. Real lasagna can be a bit of a production. I’ve never tried to make enchiladas, but you can find some recipes online that are every bit as easy as the ones I suggest here.
Quick and tasty chicken meals
You can, of course, use chicken instead of tuna or hamburger for any of the above ideas. It’s a genuine convenience food no matter what meat or fish you use. (Shrimp works well for many of these recipes. Or salmon.)
But I see that Chicken Helper comes in a fried rice variety. If that’s what you want, cook some rice. Put a little oil in a skillet. Add the cooked rice and some soy sauce. Stir it together. If you like, beat some eggs. Push the rice aside and scramble the eggs. Then mix everything together and add the chicken and whatever (cooked) vegetables suit your fancy. It’s a great way to use up leftover veggies.
Or, I suppose, you can stir fry some fresh veggies in a skilled and then add the rice. But all the chopping makes this idea more complicated.
The whole idea of this article is to show how many different varieties of convenience food you can make. And again, convenient means you can make them with no more time and effort than it takes to fix meals from a box. Plus you don’t have the preservatives, excess salt, and excess packaging.
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