Outsourcing Cooking

For the first time in history, in March Americans spent more money at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.

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As the chart shows, we’ve been trending in this direction a long time.

Keep in mind that as a society we spend less of our income on food than any society in the history of the world (less than 10% on average for Americans). And now the amount we spend on food prepared and eaten at home is less than half of that historically-low amount. Because food eaten away from home is more expensive than food prepared and eaten at home, it would be possible for us to spend even less of our money on food if we quit eating out so much.  Yet the claim/myth that we can’t afford to eat healthy diets persists.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the declining state of our health corresponds to our increase in meals eaten away from home.  While it’s possible to eat meals of nutritious health-sustaining food at a restaurant, it’s much more difficult. It’s darn-near impossible when the meal is from a fast-food restaurant and is eaten in a car (as about 20% of our meals now are).

So why are we eating away from home so much? According to a food culture study by the Hartman Group, 52% of Americans don’t want to “spend time or energy even thinking about cooking.”

This new change has also led Americans to expect customized meals. Americans no longer feel that their meals are limited to ‘mom’s cooking’ or their own knowledge in the kitchen, nor do they feel the need for meal planning. In fact, 63% of people (and 78% of Millennials) typically decide what they want to eat within an hour of eating because they have adapted to this new ‘made to order’ lifestyle.

We’ve been shocked to discover that many people these days don’t know how to cook.  They’ve simply never learned to prepare food.  I’d wager that while many of the people who are driving the red line on that chart ever higher would say they eat away from home because it’s more “convenient,” for an increasing number of them a significant reason is simply that they’ve never learned to cook.  And of course the generation growing up in homes where little or no cooking is occurring will enter adulthood without that basic skill as well.

We all have to eat of course.  Just as we’ve become dependent on the industrial system to supply our food, now we’re increasingly becoming dependent upon it to cook it for us too. We’re essentially outsourcing our cooking. It is just one more way we’re embracing dependency.

As Wendell Berry put it in his 1989 essay “The Pleasures of Eating”:

The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into our mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way. The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.

If we are to stop our cultural descent into poor health, we must find a way to convince people to spend their money on whole foods and to prepare and eat them at home.  For that to happen, our culture might first have to recover the ability to cook.

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