I should start this post off by reassuring readers that this is not some sort of “get healthy quick scheme” offering 7 easy steps to magically become a healthier person.
The title is merely a more optimistic counter to an article that I recently read titled “WORK CRY AGE DIE: Food-delivery apps are selling desperate millennials on lies”. If you get the chance, the article is interesting – although left me slightly discouraged. In summary, this opinion piece is a commentary on an ad campaign the author recently observed in a Toronto Subway station. The ad campaign was for Skip-the-Dishes; an app-based third-party restaurant delivery service.
The advertisements posted throughout the busy subway station reportedly had two features. The first was a splashy display of unhealthy food – the usual take-out culprits from burgers and fries to pizza and tacos.
The second was a series of messages suggesting that we’re all far too busy to cook. Messages like “You have places to be. The kitchen isn’t one of them”; “Whether you’re busy or ‘busy’, cooking ain’t happening”; and finally; “You barely have time to read this. Nevermind cook”.
I can only assume that this advertising campaign targets everyone from busy families with hectic schedules to over-worked millennials. Particular messages like “Side hustle. Side of fries.” leads me to believe that millennials make up a significant portion of their target market.
As a millennial myself, I get it, everyone’s busy. Yes – planning, grocery shopping, cooking, doing the dishes – these things all take time. Personally, I love to cook. It might be my favourite past-time, which I recognize likely makes me an outlier, but even I have succumbed to the convenience of take-out and food delivery upon occasion. I also recognize the barriers to cooking that many face, and I am not here to judge anyone for cooking less. The last thing I would want is for people to feel guilty about either their inability to cook, or their lack of time to cook.
However, these kinds of messages have become more common and each time I see one, I feel some degree of frustration. I realize that for companies like Skip-the-Dishes, less people cooking in kitchens is good for business. However, to celebrate the decline in cooking, to even encourage it by justifying the expense because we’re too busy, is discouraging. Making an activity, that some have argued is foundational to many aspects of our culture, seem unnecessary? Boring? A waste of time? Not only did I need to pause to check my frustration, but I was also pushed to carefully reflect on why so many of us are cooking less than before.
Is home cooking on the decline?
For most, the anecdotal answer is likely a resounding ‘yes’ but I was eager to see if the world of peer-reviewed research could confirm my assumptions.
In 2013, the Nutrition Journal published a study examining trends in US home food preparation and consumption first between 1965-1966, and again between 2007-2008. After comparing the two time periods, the authors reported that both the consumption of foods from the home as well as time spent cooking decreased between the two time periods. Perhaps most surprisingly, across all socio-economic groups, only slightly more than half of the sample reported spending time cooking on any given day.
So, why the decline in home cooked meals?
This is a question with many answers. I’ve provided a short list of reasons based on some research and my own observations. Although it suggests some reasons for this trend, it is by no means comprehensive.
1. Nightmare in the kitchen?
For some, cooking may be a serious source of fear or stress. From the “What if I mess up?” to the “Why bother? I don’t have the ingredients or appliances necessary to make something that actually tastes good.”, a lack of self-confidence can be common.
Perhaps these self-doubting questions have plagued previous generations and this is not unique to millennials today. However, without our modern conveniences, our ancestors had fewer alternatives to feed themselves. Thus, the options were to go hungry, or else to pick up a knife and chopping board and figure it out. There are far too many easier and more enticing options nowadays – from take-out to delivery, companies like Skip-the-Dishes have you covered. But at what cost are we willing to embrace this convenience?
2. We can’t all be “Top Chefs”
Food literacy is on the decline. We cook less than we used to and as a result, are less likely to teach future generations how to cook. Chalk it up to busier schedules or the fact that many schools no longer offer valuable home economics courses teaching basic cooking skills, without the knowledge, skills and time, cooking can be seriously daunting.
3. A more equitable workforce
The decline in home cooking has also been attributed to the continuing shift in gender roles, most notably women entering the workforce. Although the research does suggest this is a contributing factor to the decline in home cooking, I am by no means suggesting we reverse this trend. I say we focus on helping people to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence required to cook.
4. Building design
Could it be possible that the retail market is impacting our ability to cook at home? A new Toronto condo building recently made the news as it was built only with small kitchenettes, all of which omitted an oven. With this previously staple appliance removed, developers argued the condos appear larger. Furthermore, these buildings are targeting a demographic that apparently doesn’t cook. One quote from this article that I found especially discouraging was as follows; “Society is moving toward an app-driven society where Skip the Dishes is the new norm and there’s no need to cook” (The Star). In my opinion, just because there are other alternatives does not mean that it removes the need to cook.
5. Dining out is a social experience
Eating out is inevitably more expensive than home cooked meals. However, for some people, the additional expense is justified as dining out fulfills not only the purpose of procuring sustenance, but can also be a hobby and provide a source of entertainment. This added engagement provides consumers with more bang for their buck and more reason to hit the town for dinner rather than their home kitchens. This may be especially true for people who live alone.
6. The downside of grocery shopping
Another reason for dining out that I’ve heard before is that certain food products in the grocery store are offered in sizes that are too large for single-occupant households. Therefore, grocery shopping is viewed as being less cost-effective and generating additional waste.
Is NOT cooking bad for our health?
To quote from an article written by Micheal Pollan that I came across during my research, “The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being”
To back this claim up with some evidence, Pollan cites a 2003 study conducted by a group of Harvard economists. In this study, it was suggested that the rise of food preparation outside of the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in North America. As the “time cost” of food has decreased, easy access to high-calorie food has resulted in increased calorie consumption. Paradoxically, when we don’t cook our own meals, we tend to eat more meals. Overall, obesity rates were found to be inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation.
The many factors that shape our daily food choices are complex and interrelated. Ultimately, there is no magic bullet to health. However, cooking healthy food at home, with its myriad of benefits, may be as close as we can get for now. In my opinion, this is the foundation to being successful and supporting productivity at work.
As for the message “You have places to be. The kitchen isn’t one of them”, I ask that we start encouraging the opposite. Although I recognize this kind of message is unlikely to come from a food delivery app, the repercussions are important.
All that being said, I do think it is important to acknowledge that not everyone has to cook or should like to cook. I recognize that it’s not for everyone. However, given all of the positive effects of cooking at home from improved health, better diet quality and in some cases, even reducing food waste, celebrating its demise is counterproductive. This kind of messaging pushes us further away from connecting with food and developing food literacy skills.
Rather than promoting the abolishment of cooking, we should be working together to reduce barriers to the kitchen and teaching children the food literacy skills they'll need in the future.
Interested in learning more about food-delivery services? Check out our podcast with Andrew Coppolino exploring the emergence of food delivery apps and how they’re changing the restaurant game.
Recommended citation format: Gallant, M. "Cook, Eat, Work, Thrive: A semi-regular home cook’s plea”. Food Focus Guelph (62), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, October 3rd, 2019.