Why American's aren't cooking

In a recent online gallery newsletter, Taos artist Ed Sandoval shared memories of his grandmother, Luisita Rivera (1871-1956). “She never complained about anything,” he writes. “In fact, she was grateful to have a ‘good’ living (to her, that meant a roof over her head and a steady food supply) … My strongest memory is her cooking on that black, cast-iron wood stove. She was always cooking! Why? The extended family would often gather at their home to eat — her aunts and uncles, their kids, her kids, grandchildren, etc. There would be over 20 people packed into that house.”

Regularly cooking all day for a large number of relatives and friends is a rare thing today. While most authorities acknowledge that the habit of cooking from scratch has been disappearing from American homes for decades, others point to signs that the trend is beginning to reverse itself.

In honor of Labor Day, established in 1894 to celebrate the economic and cultural contributions of workers, we offer some statistics that may help explain who’s in the kitchen, what they’re making, and why.

▼ In 1965, women spent nearly two hours a day in the kitchen. By 2016, they spent a little less than an hour preparing meals.

The number of women working full-time, and the number of hours they dedicate to household and family chores has changed.

▼ A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that two-parent households where both parents work full-time now make up 46 percent of the American population, compared to 31 percent in 1970.

▼ The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 70 percent of mothers participate in the labor force; seventy-five percent are employed full-time.

▼ A recent study of 2,000 American mothers with children ages 5 to 12 found that the average working mom puts in a 98-hour workweek — the equivalent of roughly two-and-a-half full-time jobs. Between the job and other daily family responsibilities, “the average mom only gets about an hour and seven minutes to herself each day,” the study says.

▼ On an average day, men spend about 22 minutes on food preparation — far less kitchen time than women, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Could working women and men find more time to cook if they valued home-cooked meals more?

▼ In a 2014 TED Talk with more than 8 million views, British restaurateur/chef and longtime healthy-eating advocate Jamie Oliver advises Americans to reduce the amount of unhealthy processed food they consume by “passing on cooking skills again.” But that view is too simplistic, a group of social scientists found in a five-year study. “Oliver and other food reformers believe that the time is there to cook, if only people would get their priorities straight,” the researchers said. “When experts talk about making time for dinner, they rarely consider households whose daily rhythm is largely out of their control.”

▼ Less time to cook and less confidence in their kitchen skills affects Americans’ social lives, too. The Washington Post writes that people are hosting fewer dinner parties: “The number of people who said they entertained in their homes at least 12 times in the last year fell from 40 percent in the 1970s to 20 percent in 2003.”

Would more people do more cooking from scratch if they had more time and training? Not necessarily. Think tank founder Eddie Yoon writes in the Harvard Business Review that research he conducted on cooking showed that only 10 percent of consumers love to cook, while 45 percent hate it and 45 percent are lukewarm about it — a drop of about 30 percent overall in people willing to cook over the past 15 years.

Does that mean that pots and pans will eventually become obsolete? Not necessarily. The Chicago Tribune reports that 82 percent of American meals are still prepared at home — more than were cooked 10 years ago, according to research from industry analyst NPD Group Inc. And a 2018 study in Nutrition Journal supports that claim. While acknowledging that home cooking in the United States did indeed decline in the late 20th century, the study presents newer information showing that cooking increased overall between 2003 to 2016.

Who is helping to turn the culinary tide?

Research conducted by The Spoon, a website that reports on the food tech revolution, indicates that “younger Millennials are the generation that cooks at home the most frequently: Ninety-five percent prepare meals at home at least once a week, compared to 92 percent of those aged 30 to 44 and 93 percent of those aged 45 to 59,” the site found.

An estimated 33 percent prepare simple one- or two-ingredient meals, like burgers or spaghetti. And 26 percent spend a couple of hours cooking something more complicated, the research showed.

Cooking at home saves money and it also increases the likelihood of healthier meals.

A 2018 article in Forbes magazine on food spending reported that it is almost five times more expensive to order home delivery from a restaurant than it is to cook at home. A meal kit service is a bit more affordable, but still almost three times more expensive as cooking from scratch.

Still, the range of options for eating (if not necessarily cooking) at home have multiplied, including food delivery apps for local restaurants, uncooked meal kits, and ready-made pre-cooked meals, delivered to the door or picked up in a nearby market — which has supermarkets scrambling to maintain or increase their share of Americans’ food budget. According to an Aug. 14 article in the New York Times, the apps are “reshaping the restaurant industry — and how we eat — by inspiring digital-only establishments that don’t need a dining room or waiters.”

Supermarkets are experimenting with grab-and-go precooked meals and online delivery services. Even fast-food restaurants, like Chick-fil-A, are test-marketing meal kits that can be picked up in the drive-through lane and taken home to cook.

As of 2018, money.com reports, “We now spend more on food at restaurants than we do on supermarket groceries. Meanwhile, the amount we spend on food outside the home has risen from about 26 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2012.”

Uber Eats racked up $7.9 billion in total food sales in 2018, the Supermarket Guru website reports, while other delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash, and Postmates are also growing rapidly. The total projected marketplace for online food delivery is estimated at $17 billion.

Some grocery stores are pushing back by making it easier for families to plan, shop for, cook, and serve dinner, in conjunction with National Family Meals Month — an annual campaign created in 2015 by the Food Marketing Institute Foundation that is “designed to support families in enjoying more meals together using items purchased at the grocery store.” The campaign works through member grocers and community organizations. The goal of the campaign is for people to commit to preparing and sharing one more meal a week at home in the month of September. It doesn’t do the cooking for you, but it does take some of the work out of planning and shopping.

And cooking is work. Those of us who love cooking will probably continue to prepare meals at home for themselves, friends, and family. The remaining, who either dislike cooking or lack the time, energy, or skills to pull it off on a regular basis, can now take advantage of myriad new ways to bring home the bacon. ◀

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