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Jewish World Review June 26, 2001 / 5 Tamuz, 5761

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

Validation in a bag -- I AM so relieved. I thought I was virtually alone out there with my little secret, but, wonderfully, I've found there are millions of women like me. I don't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed or inadequate anymore. It turns out my "problem" is really a trend.

Whew. I no longer have to hide my commitment to what I call "dinner-in-a bag" (DIB). Apparently my obsession has become part of the mainstay of life for many American women.

Just what is DIB? It's those great ready-made meals, like Skillet Sensations, the Green Giant Complete Skillet meals, or a raft of new entries in between. It could be chicken teriyaki, beef broccoli, shrimp and scallops: The possibilities are endless. But generally everything you need is in one bag (or box), and here's the dirty little secret: You actually pour it into a pan and flip it around for a bit in some oil, then serve it to your family nice and hot. Voila, you feel like you've actually "done something" in the kitchen. That, apparently, provides a lot of guilty satisfaction.

So reveals the Wall Street Journal. In a recent Page One piece on the DIB phenomenon, reporter Jonathan Eig writes that "After 30 years as the undisputed king of dinner mixes, Hamburger Helper suddenly faces a challenge. The food industry, obsessed for years with making products ever readier to eat, has had a revelation: Americans want to do a bit, but just a bit, of actual cooking." So developing ever more and better types of such meals are apparently all the rage at the big food companies like Kraft, Nestle, Pillsbury and others, and I couldn't be happier about it. Eig says the new awareness has the food industry "scrambling to come up with products that require little time and skill while still evoking the aura of home cooking." The name is the best part. These meals are termed by the industry "convenient-involvement-products." I love these people.

Now apparently they'll sheepishly admit that many of these meals could be made just as easily, or more easily, in the microwave. But with that, they note, there is no sense of "accomplishment." Bingo.

It's estimated that 44 percent of dinners prepared in American homes are made in 30 minutes or less, and food executives want to drop that number still further. So, Eig reveals, "Companies such as Pillsbury and Nestle have done exhaustive research on how many pots and pans harried chefs want to use and how long they want to spend at the stove so that they can still feel good about the result. (Answers: one and 15 minutes.)" And yes we can assume, as the industry does, that those cooks are by and large women. Millions of them.

I've never been much of a cook, I'm afraid. My husband doesn't really protest much (he's not much of a handyman, so maybe we're sort of even). Still, I'm the one who is home with the kids and the cooking is my "job." And Tater Tots, hot dogs, and tons of macaroni and cheese finally started all tasting alike. My little boy gave up asking me "what are we having for dinner?" since I routinely answered, at 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening, "I don't know." Once he said, admiringly, "Mom, I remember a couple of months ago you knew in the morning what we were having for dinner that night."

That's when I knew something had to be done.

It was about that time a few years ago when I first stumbled on these dinner-in-a-bag products, and I felt like I'd struck gold. They are relatively cheap, so easy, even nutritious and yes. . . I actually feel that by shaking the ingredients around in some hot oil and a pan for a few minutes before putting it onto my family's plates I'm actually, dare I say it, "cooking." But as happy as I was to find the DIBs, and as happy as my family was -- after all this stuff is pretty good -- I'd always felt a bit embarrassed, a bit sheepish about what I was doing, or not doing, in the kitchen.

No more. After finding out I'm practically leading a trend, I feel positively liberated. It's not that even now we have such meals every or even most nights (though it's always reassuring to know I have them as a fall-back position.) It's just that since I can finally hold my head high about my DIB option, I'm beginning to wonder if anybody makes "car-pooling-in-a-bag," "laundry-in-a-bag," "housekeeping-in-a-bag". . .

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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