Convenience is the enemy of intentionality.
We've all been there—walking the aisles at the grocery store, succumbing to the allure of packets, jars, bottles and boxes promising quick and easy meals. Our eyes are drawn to enticing pictures and colorful banners proclaiming, "Ready in minutes!"
And, whether we notice it or not, this anticipation excites our brains. So much so that we don't notice our ability to make good decisions diminishing as our carts fill up. Any intentionality we brought with us to the grocery store—be it a list, a recipe or a promise to ourselves to buy healthier food—disappears, pushed aside by the promise of more convenient options.
On the way home, we answer the siren call of the drive-thru, pleased that we don't have to interrupt a busy day to make lunch. Within minutes, the meal is reduced to a few brightly printed wrappers and the satisfying sucking sound a plastic straw makes as the last of the soda disappears into our mouths.
All the while, we're being deceived.
We think convenience is a good thing. We think we're saving time and energy, fueling our hectic lifestyles by eliminating some or all of the prep time meals used to require. We think we've leveled up from the dark and archaic days when eating meant disengaging from life to spend time in the kitchen.
But what we've really done is allowed the food industry to hack our biology and trick our brains into skipping over essential mechanisms involved in conscious choice. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, we've willfully opted for the comfortable path to instant gratification, caring little that we've given up our intentionality in the process.
We have, in fact, let the food system ensnare us.
Slaves to Convenience
Humanity has an inherent problem with effortless availability. We're hard-wired to do what's easiest—naturally biased toward the option requiring the least energy on our part. Unless this default response gets interrupted, we fall into a cycle of habit that often points us away from what's best for us.
Biblical history offers a clear example of this in the book of Deuteronomy, which records the last words Moses spoke to the Israelites after leading them on a forty-year journey through the wilderness to the land God had promised to give them.
This vast land—large enough to comfortably accommodate at least one million people—was described as one "flowing with milk and honey." Clearly, when the Israelites arrived, they wouldn't be wanting for food (or anything else). God promised they would have more than enough to meet their needs.
But they couldn't just descend on this natural buffet with wild abandon. Before taking anything for themselves, God commanded them to pause, reflect and give thanks for what He had provided:
And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and possessest it, and dwellest therein;
That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there.
And thou shalt go unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him, I profess this day unto the Lord thy God, that I am come unto the country which the Lord sware unto our fathers for to give us. (Deuteronomy 26:1-3)
The rest of the passage goes on to describe the full ceremony, which focused the Israelite's attention on God as provider and recalled how He cared for the them throughout their history. In bringing the firstfruits to God, the people of Israel were acknowledging His fulfillment of His promise, as well as celebrating the opportunity to enjoy the gift of the land and all it had to offer.
The ceremony was structured, focused and intentional—three things missing from today's culture of convenient food, which emphasizes quick indulgences and mindless actions.
But that didn't mean the Israelites were immune to the allure of being comfortable and fulfilled with a minimum amount of effort. Quite the contrary; they, like us, were prone to defaulting to harmful tendencies and habits.
Later on in Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses to teach the Israelites a song to act as both a reminder and a warning. Being God, He knows everything about human nature and already knew what would happen once His people settled down and started enjoying the bounty of the land:
For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant. (Deuteronomy 31:20, emphasis mine)
It wouldn't take long for the Israelites to forget that God was the one Who made it possible for them to take possession of all that bounty. Instead of obeying His command to give thanks and enjoying the fruits of the land as gifts from Him, they slid comfortably into self-indulgence and were led astray into idolatry.
The same happens to us when we let intentionality go by the wayside and embrace what's convenient over what's best. Our culture collectively bows to convenience.
The Idol of Convenience
Over the years, we've become convinced that food preparation is too hard, too time consuming, too impractical.
Why cook from scratch, or even cook at all, if we can have one of those meals that—as promised—cooks in minutes? Or, if with no more effort than a few taps on our smartphone screens, our favorite restaurant will deliver to our doors?
This ability to hand off the work of cooking breeds disdain for preparing food the traditional way. We've forgotten the joy of planning meals, revisiting treasured cookbooks and scouring food blogs for fresh inspiration. Our kitchens, once vibrant with conversation as the family bonded over cooking, stand empty as we spend a few mindless moments with a delivery app.
And grocery shopping? That's what Instacart is for.
"We Don't Have Time"
The shift toward convenience started off innocently enough with frozen and canned versions of common ingredients. And indeed, some of these items can help us achieve more intentionality in our diets, allowing us to include foods like vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains in our meals even when we need to get dinner on the table in a hurry.
Unfortunately, the concept spiraled out of control over the decades. We now live in a world with a plethora of cheap, fast food is available any time of day or night, no preparation required. (And, incidentally, where marshmallow cereal and bacon milkshakes qualify as food.)
It's a self-perpetuating cycle that began with a subtle, devious whisper from the food industry.
This whisper first reached our ears after World War II. As incomes increased and supermarkets became more common, food marketing convinced women that the kitchen was no place to spend the day. Makers of convenient canned and packaged foods swept in and declared, "We've got this. You have better things to do."
And we took the bait.
We came to believe we did have better things to do. Over time, we packed our schedules so full that we became slaves to the food system, relying on conveniences to keep us fed. Somewhere along the line, we abandoned the careful planning and preparation that slows us down, focuses us—and allows us to truly appreciate what we're eating.
And, just like the Israelites, we forgot or failed to acknowledge God as provider (and still do). We forgot the importance of food, forsook the joys of traditional meals and made convenience a god in our lives.
Speed: The Secret Weapon of Convenience
How could we be so easily led astray?
It comes back to the sneaky way the food industry plays on our biology.
We're not only wired to choose the easiest option; we're also drawn to the fastest. Speed helps explain why we like convenience. There's less of a wait before getting what we want—or think we want—and we get a rush of pleasure in response to fulfilling that desire.
Pleasure is our brain's way of rewarding us. The faster we gulp something down when it says, "Eat!", the bigger the reward.
But there's a dark side to this cycle, especially when it comes to modern convenience foods. Because it's not just how quickly we respond to the call to eat but how quickly what we eat sends a signal to the brain that can ensnare us in the food system's trap. Just like that, we're robbed of our intentionality and tricked into believing that rush of pleasure is the same thing as enjoyment.
Salt, Sugar, Fat and Speed
The foods that hijack our brains combine three main ingredients to manipulate flavor and texture: salt, sugar and fat.
It's no coincidence that these same ingredients hit the brain faster than some of the most addictive substances on the planet.
A fraction of a second after taking your first bite, your brain recognizes you're eating, sends out a reward in the form of natural opioids and creates that feeling of satisfaction we've all had when munching on our favorite quick indulgences.
But when salt, sugar and fat meet speed and convenience, something else happens in the brain: Our intentionality gets bypassed. What's supposed to happen next is a rational line of thought, taking us from the decision of what to eat through the planning and preparation process before we actually have a meal or snack. That intentional process takes us away from the altar of convenience and gives us the time to consider both the origin and contents of what we're putting in our bodies.
When we reach for convenience foods instead, we grab, unwrap and eat so quickly that the part of our brains that would slow us down and make us really think doesn't get a word in edgewise. We are, in the words of Michael Moss, "seeking reward without weighing the risk."
The Simple Path to Self-Indulgence
On the surface, convenience seems like a good thing.
It saves time.
It allows us to get more done.
It frees us, we think, from being tied to our kitchens and "wasting" all that time making food.
What risk could there possibly be if convenience makes us more productive—and all those salty, sugary, fatty foods taste so good?
The answer stares us in the face every time we go from thinking we'd really like a quick snack to staring at the greasy bottom of a French fry box and wondering what happened.
Every time we wish we could slow down and have a family meal but discover our schedules are so packed that we literally can't stop for longer than it takes to hit the drive-thru or get takeout.
Every time we want to order the salad but wind up getting the burger instead.
The desire to eat, which is driven by dopamine, isn't bad in and of itself; we have to eat to survive. But convenience takes us so quickly from desire to satisfaction that it sucks us into the cycle of seeking the fastest route to fulfillment. We wind up seeking pleasure at the expense of intentional thought and true enjoyment, electing instead to turn to the idol of convenience for our provision.
We let the food industry—and our own biology—manipulate us once again.
Just like that, our worship of convenience begets a tendency toward self-indulgence.
Finding True Enjoyment
Seeking a shortcut to self-indulgence is almost oxymoronic given that the speed of convenience also extends to how quickly we eat.
Does anyone really savor a fast-food burger or a microwaved burrito? When was the last time any of us finished a bag of chips with the sense we'd had an exceptional culinary experience?
Contrast this with the act of making a meal:
We have to stop what we're doing and interact with the ingredients.
We touch, chop, stir and smell. We add touches of seasonings or put together a sauce.
We taste and adjust until we find the perfect balance.
All these interactions take our immediate attention off dopamine's insistent prodding and turn us instead to the food itself. That period of focus, that intentionality, carries through into the act of eating—and this time, when we take the first bite, we don't just get a rush of pleasure. We actually taste the food, savor the flavors and pay attention to what we're eating.
In short, we get to experience true enjoyment of God's provision, not a momentary biological response that we barely notice because we're too busy.
Breaking the Convenience Cycle
How did we get from Deuteronomy to dopamine? What are we missing when we turn our attention from God and His provision in favor of chasing fulfillment in the form of convenience?
It helps to understand what the Israelites were doing when they followed God's instruction to present the firstfruits of the land unto Him:
Remembering promises: Part of the ceremony involved rehearsing how God had promised the Israelite's forefathers that He would give the the land to their descendants. Their arrival was the fulfillment of that promise, and with it came the ability to partake of the fruits of the land.
Expressing thankfulness: God was providing for the Israelites in a new and unfamiliar place where they hadn't yet had a chance to settle down and plant their own crops. Bringing Him the firstfruits was a way of acknowledging Him as provider—and thanking Him for His care.
Preventing mindlessness and complacency: To present the food before God, the Israelites first had to gather it into a basket and take it to the priests at a central location. This required restraint; God received the first and the best of everything before the Israelites took anything for themselves.
Intentionality was built into this system. In everything, including in growing, harvesting and eating food, the Israelites were to focus on God. Ceremonies like this one kept their focus in the right place: on Him.
Today, we're called to have the same focus, as the apostle Paul pointed out when writing to the Corinthians:
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
But the speed of convenience has an insidious way of taking God—and the real enjoyment His provision gives us—out of the picture. We eat mindlessly, praising the convenience of being able to get what we want at a moment's notice. We can indulge ad infinitum, never having to make a conscious decision, but we forfeit true enjoyment in favor of pleasure in the process.
Convenience has so detached us from food's origins and preparation that we don't give any consideration to the fact that God is still the ultimate provider.
We've created a plethora of highly processed, quick pseudo-meals that do little more than zap our taste buds with salt, sugar and fat—effectively perverting God's provision and turning it into mindless, self-indulgent moments with which we punctuate our days.
Finding Freedom, God's Way
We can break free from this. The three key points in the Israelite's ceremony show us the way forward:
Remember God's provision: Food doesn't land fully formed in attractive packaging; it begins as something growing in the earth. As the Bible points out numerous times, God orchestrates everything, from seed to fruit to final meal (see Psalm 8, Nehemiah 9:6 and Colossians 1:16-17). Recognizing this takes our attention off the immediate*—*the speed—and puts the act of eating in a much more impactful context.
Give thanks: Stopping to acknowledge that food is a blessing reorients us to its true value. Rather than lamenting the amount of time it takes to make a meal, we set aside things that are less important in order to make that process part of our daily lives.
Act with intention: By reconnecting with the hands-on process of planning meals, we can retrain ourselves to make conscious decisions about food—and slow ourselves down enough for true enjoyment instead of quick and momentary hits of pleasure.
Following this model can also have a profound effect on what we eat. Consider this: How often would we actually have cake, cookies, candy, French fries, pizza, burgers and the myriad of crazy snacks available throughout the grocery store if we had to gather the ingredients and make them ourselves?
Even if we were feeling enterprising enough to try it, the involved nature of the process would mean we'd inherently eat fewer of these foods due to the sheer amount of preparation involved. The very process of preparation would open our eyes to the labor involved and give us a greater appreciation for foods we've come to take for granted.
Perhaps most importantly, putting remembrance, thankfulness and intentionality together saves us from the snare of seeking instant gratification and removes us from the cycle of self-indulgence convenience so often perpetuates.
The Idol Dethroned
We're not doomed to complacency.
The food system doesn't rule us, and we're not obligated to be slaves to the convenience cycle. It's an idol that can be dethroned—if we're willing to return to the kind of intentionality that puts our focus back on the true Provider.
Moss, Michael. Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions. Signal, 2022.
Thanks to Foster member Tom White for help and insights on this!