I grew up in a household where my mother cooked, almost every night, almost always from scratch. Watching her come home after working a full day and then prepare a meal from scratch instilled in me a belief that cooking was an important task in running a household. I started cooking in the second grade when I was in 4-H. I entered my first cooking contest when I was 7 or 8. When I was living by myself I cooked a big meal every weekend and ate off the leftovers all week. Now I cook dinner for my family on average 5 nights a week. And by cooking, I mean from scratch, using whole ingredients.
I am not writing this to toot my own horn. I like to cook, always have, and usually find it a relaxing, creative outlet. Given the pleasure I get out of cooking and the importance I place on the task, I was surprised to learn in a report from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that Americans spend an average of just 30 minutes per day cooking. This earns us a rank of 34th out of 34 countries in the amount of time we spend cooking. I’m sure the reasons Americans cook so little are as varied as our foods. I understand not everyone is going to have the zeal for cooking that I do. Some people even hate cooking, ranking it right before their worse household chore. Others may enjoy cooking, but don’t cook very often for a variety of reasons.
Many Americans will tell you the lack of time is a major factor in why they do not cook from scratch. Most American households now have both parents in the workforce. Additionally, today’s families are involved in so many activities that often evenings become a series of comings and goings as children need to be shuttled to and from practices or lessons not to mention any evening activities Mom or Dad need to attend. Finally, in today’s work environment, Americans are having to work longer hours to meet the increased demands of their job or work more than one job to make ends meet. All of these demands add up leaving limited time for meal preparation.
Coinciding with the time constraints most Americans experience in their lives is the rise in availability of convenience foods. I am not sure if the proliferation of prepackaged, processed convenience foods is a response to our fast paced lives or has allowed our fast paced lives to continue, but these foods have shortened the amount of time required to put a meal on the table. Michael Moss chronicles the creation and marketing of convenience foods, mostly as these foods relate to the obesity epidemic in the United States, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. He discusses how the marketing of these foods is aimed at working mothers and the ease these foods will bring to their lives by freeing them from the task of cooking from scratch. I have to admit that I have reached for these convenience foods when I need to get a quick meal on the table between picking one son up from an after school activity and taking the other one to an evening practice.
Another reason for the decline in cooking might be found in this disturbing statistic reported in a Huffington Post article from September 2011. The article states that 28% of Americans do not know how to cook. That is almost one third of us! Why is this? Perhaps this statistic is a by-product of several decades of increasing reliance on prepackaged, convenience foods. Parents are not passing on the skills of cooking from scratch if they are increasingly adding water or milk and a prepackaged spice mix to a box of noodles. Furthermore, according to the author Michael Moss, Family and Consumer Science classes, formerly called Home Economics, often rely on the use of these convenience foods when instructing students in cooking. That would be in the schools were Family and Consumer Science is still taught. In many schools it has disappeared completely from the curriculum. I guess it is not surprising that so many people do not know how to cook, if there exists little opportunity to learn to cook.
That so many people do not know how to cook troubles me profoundly for a couple of reasons. After reading Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I am convinced our reliance on processed convenience foods is a leading cause of our obesity epidemic and the dangerous rise in diabetes rates. Being able to cook whole foods that have not been heavily processed and do not contain added salt, sugar and fat is a necessity to bring those rates down. But cooking from scratch has another important benefit. Knowing how to cook from scratch makes money spent on food go further. In my next post I will address how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars, a benefit to all, but a necessity to the food insecure.