We Have To Let Go Of The Processed-Food Guilt Already

by Melissa L. Fenton

Today’s families are bombarded daily with all things food: organic, vegan, non-GMO, sustainable, farm-to-table, natural, preservative-free, grass-fed, free-range. Food, glorious food! We have entire TV networks devoted to the preparing of it, Instagram feeds full of mouth-watering pictures of it. There are news stories and research studies on the evils of processed foods, and the health benefits of whole foods constantly steam in our newsfeeds.

On a daily basis, we’re made well aware of how nutritionally lacking pre-processed boxed dinners can be, and we’re endlessly being told about how organic and “from scratch” is simply superior. Feeding our children anything less is some type of failure on our part, right?

And yet millions of mothers wander through grocery stores every day and are forced to make a choice, one that they don’t want to make, but one that they have to make. They have to put food on the table, but with tight budgets can only afford to do so with the least expensive offerings out there. And what is usually the cheapest food? It’s the processed stuff in boxes and cans, loaded with chemicals and completely absent of high-quality nutrients.

Twenty-two-year-old childless me would have looked at a mom in the store, her cart full of boxes of macaroni and cheese and canned raviolis, and she would have thought, How can you serve your children that garbage? Forty-four-year-old mother of four insatiably hungry sons looks at that same mom in the store now and thinks, I get it. You have hungry mouths to feed, and groceries are freaking expensive.

I’m one of those moms now, having spent the last 18 years feeding endlessly hungry boys, and forever standing in grocery aisles doing food math in my head: “Well, I can buy the seven pack of chicken breasts, and everyone will get one and the big boys will get two, but that means I will get cereal. I have to be okay with that. Ground beef next. I need 3 pounds for dinner tonight. Grass-fed is best, right? But it’s three times as expensive. Not happening today.” No less than millions of mothers across the country are standing in grocery aisles and having the same conversation in their heads right now.

Preparing healthy meals day in and day out not only takes a robust budget, it also takes a great deal of prep time and an abundance of meal planning — time that full-time working mothers just don’t have. That mom with the 85-cent box of macaroni and cheese in her cart? She got to the store at 6 p.m. after a 10-hour workday and is then expected to go home and prepare a homemade macaroni and cheese dish?

Even if she did have the time, could she afford to do so? From-scratch mac and cheese made with organic butter, pasture-raised organic milk, and whole block cheese (she shreds it herself), whole grain breadcrumbs (she crumbles from the loaf she baked a few days ago), and whole wheat organic pasta would cost well over $1.50 per serving — per serving. For less than $2, that mom can prepare boxed macaroni and cheese and feed the whole family.

Many may say lack of time and money is no excuse, and ask, “But isn’t it her responsibility to learn how to plan and prepare healthy meals, even on a tight budget?” My answer to that is this: I’ve got mad cooking skills, as in, I look at a bag of flour and know that with water, salt, and yeast I can have fresh bread on the table in under two hours. But the only way I am able to make that — or any other healthy meals — happen is if I have the luxury of being home two hours before dinner to do all the prep. (Oh, and that’s from a regular $3 bag of all-purpose flour. You want the seven-grain, sprouted wheat, non-GMO organic blend? That will be $10 a bag, or damn close.) It is a blessing to have the time to prepare from-scratch wholesome foods, but not even all the time in the day can make up for the fact that higher-quality ingredients are just way more expensive.

Feeding our children how science tells us we should is now simply out of reach for the average middle-class family, it’s not only because it’s become financially impossible. Ever hear a chef on a cooking show tell you to ask your butcher for a certain cut of meat? Or to use only fresh herbs? Or to shop only the perimeter of the grocery store? Working parents (or any busy family for that matter) don’t have time to visit specialty butcher shops for high-end cuts of meat or to tend to a bountiful herb garden at home. And for mothers who use public transportation and only have access to a grocery store once a week, schlepping fresh food (which is not only heavier but spoils quicker) is not feasible in the long run. What about the meal companies that offer time-crunched families healthy options prepped and shipped to your door? Well, those meals can run over a whopping $8 per serving, and for many families that expense just isn’t an option.

Thankfully, many families who receive benefits to supplement their food budget will (hopefully) see a much anticipated option this year. The Agriculture Department said that it will test a program that allows people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, also known as food stamps — to order groceries online through various retailers. The ability to shop online could bring healthful food into food deserts, which are low-income areas where fresh food is not readily available.

The older I get, the less I judge mothers just trying to get by, and that includes those busy moms and dads choosing the box of macaroni and cheese over the fresh-baked casserole version. I not only get it, I have also embraced my share of boxed meals too. Because when it comes down to it, what’s more important? Sitting together and eating together? Or going broke just trying to?