Outsourcing Cooking

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

foodsales

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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34 comments on “Outsourcing Cooking

  1. shoreacres says:

    Here’s an idle thought. At the same time all of this is happening, the popularity of cooking shows, blog sites devoted to cooking, and cooking websites has also risen — dramatically. And yet, what I’ve noticed about many of them is how complicated the recipes are: how many ingredients they require, and how expensive they would be to prepare. There are many, many people I read who will occasionally post a recipe, and by the time I’ve hit the shitakes, the oyster sauce, the lemon grass or the pork medallions, I’m thinking, “No way I’m making that for myself,” or, “I can’t afford to make that!

    Now, the good news for me is that I was raised in the 1950s by a mother and grandmother who taught me to cook, and I had those home ec classes. I know how to prepare healthy, appealing food. But I can also understand how certain forces abroad in the land could be reinforcing the idea that cooking is so hard it needs to be left to the experts or the people who have lots of disposable time and money.

    Honestly, if I could make only one change in our schools, I think I’d insist that everyone — male and female — take both a shop class and home ec. How’s that for serious retro?

    Liked by 5 people

    • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

      Y’know, I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head…
      Here’s to the return of real DIY; no more PREpared food in our diets; healthy bodies and minds!

      Like

    • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

      By the way, I’ve got a pot of Lemon Grass growing in the window sill from that was started from some [virtually dead] stalks of organics I bought on clearance almost three years ago; ) and I’ve heard that it’s pretty easy to grow your own shiitake on pre-inoculated logs (if you’ve got the right place to grow them on, that is; )

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    • Bill says:

      That’s a great observation. Even while the trend is for less and less cooking at home, among those who are doing it, cooking is growing in popularity. The Food Channel now has over a million viewers per day. Farmers’ markets are booming in popularity. There is a resistance to this trend and it is robust. It reminds me of what’s happening with farms. Every year there are fewer farms, and the average size of farms continues to grow. But at the same time there are a growing number of small sustainable farmers. Another form of resistance to the cultural trend.

      You’re also right about the complexity of recipes. We just attended a workshop led by a professor at one of our state Ag schools who specializes in small farm direct-sales marketing. She showed that farmers can increase sales at farmers markets if they provide recipes for their produce, but that the recipes need to have five ingredients or less and take less than 30 minutes to prepare. There are those who enjoy complicated recipes, but for most folks (me included) the simpler the better.

      I’m in full agreement that a well-educated child should learn basic shop and homemaking skills. My preference is that they be taught at home, but either way they are essential life skills.

      Great comment.

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  2. Bill, you are so right about the lost art of cooking. The move from cooking at home to fast food and restaurant eating, in my humble opinion, is driven by the single segment of our population. On September 15, 2014, The Washington Post had an article that indicated that the number of single adults was either close to or has surpassed the number of those that were married in all states. Most of the single people that I know don’t eat much at home. They are not satisfied with eating at home in a boring atmosphere by themselves. Time and time again I’ve heard the excuse of being difficult to cook for one and the effort is just not worth it by the time cleanup is done. Really? One pot, one pan or one skillet, one plate, one knife, fork, and spoon. To me cleanup is part of the experience and only takes at most five to ten minutes for one person but then I’m just not a normal single person.

    I’m with Shoreacres and really don’t like to prepare or eat complicated meals. I don’t have fancy tastes or desires for food experiences. If it has more than a hand full of ingredients, it’s not on the every day list of meals.

    Have a great home grown/prepared food day.

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    • Bill says:

      No doubt there are multiple social forces at play here and that is one of them. Funny but when I was single (and when I was traveling alone) I never wanted to go out to eat alone. If I was going to eat alone, I’d prefer to do it at home. I often ordered room service at hotels just because I hated to go to restaurant and ask for a table for one. But I wasn’t cooking homecooked meals for myself either. I think the increasing singleness of our society is definitely a factor.

      I agree about the complicated recipes. At the Ellen Gustafson lecture we attended (I blogged about it recently) she was making the case for cooking fresh food. One of the students asked her for her favorite recipe. Her answer was a simple scrambled egg recipe. I don’t recall exactly what was in it but there weren’t more than 3 or 4 ingredients and it was very easy to prepare. She said that eating good fresh homecooked food does not require cooking elaborate dishes. That may be fun from time to time but it’s not practical for every meal. Tonight for supper we had a simple homemade pizza with only a few ingredients. Last night we had sauteed shiitake mushrooms, sauteed kale and homemade corn bread. All very simple with few ingredients.

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  3. bobraxton says:

    Our cooking abilities stem from “way back” – (female) spouse, a retired Presbyterian senior pastor (for 27 years head of staff) took high school “home economics” – 1958-1959. For myself, the oldest child, when my mother went to work second shift (3:00pm – 11:00pm) when I was in public school seventh grade, it fell upon me to prepare “supper” (the evening meal) for my father, two brothers and the number of sisters at that time – three – later two more born 1957 and 1960. Also, on the way to earning Eagle Scout – merit badges: poultry raising, camping, cooking, farming (growing stuff in the garden). We even had for a time strawberries (down near the stream “branch”) and grew our own popcorn (which we froze in half-gallon cardboard milk or orange juice containers. We popped and ate on cold days when playing family board and card games or on school outings such as to Elon for the state symphony (day-long).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Those kinds of childhoods are increasingly uncommon. My mother became responsible for cooking for her large family when she was 7. In those days that meant cooking on a wood stove (and preparing the stove wood).

      Congrats on being an Eagle Scout. Every Eagle Scout I’ve known has been an impressive person. Wonderful program.

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  4. Laura says:

    Thanks for this post Bill. My daughter goes off to college in a few months, and this has inspired me to “encourage” her to spend a little more time with me in the kitchen before heading off on her own. Luckily she has watched me cook an array of fairly simple dishes through the years and she can make a mean spaghetti (not from a jar), but she could have a few more meals under her belt.

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    • Bill says:

      Even though I grew up in a family with homecooked meals every day, I never learned to cook. The traditional division of roles was still in play and I didn’t know any men who cooked. So the few cooking skills I have I had to learn later in life. My wife didn’t begin to enjoy cooking until after we were married. She does almost all the cooking now but she learned a lot of her skills after becoming a parent. So it’s possible to learn to cook as an adult, but I wish I’d learned more earlier. For what it’s worth, both of our kids added a lot to the cooking repertoire after leaving home.

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  5. avwalters says:

    I am a “from scratch” cook, from a family of cooks and foodies. I have never understood the growing trend of restaurant dining. Not that I don’t occasionally (very rarely, actually) enjoy a meal out, but more often than not, what I make at home is much better. Rick is no slouch in the kitchen either. I think the rush to restaurant food reflects a number of societal shifts–when the heads of the household both work outside the home, they’re tired at night. Smaller families makes eating out seem economical (particularly fast “food.”) Singles eat out because it returns the social aspect to eating. In the midst of this we are losing the art of cooking at home. There’s another odd trend–how much food is purchased and then never eaten in the home. I fear that the well-intentioned are actually shopping with the intent to cook meals, but then capitulating day by day–letting the groceries to rot in the refrigerator.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bobraxton says:

      Those that do not survive our refrigerator wind up enriching our compost pile earthworms (very grateful each time).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      There are no doubt a lot of social influences contributing to this trend. More singles, dual income households, the proliferation of after-school activities for kids, the tendency for every family member to eat different things at different times, etc. But one thing we’ve noticed is the shocking number of adults who simply don’t know how to cook. If you handed them a grocery bag full of whole foods that required cooking, they wouldn’t know what to do with them. We’ve had people tell us that they want to eat better but that they never learned to cook beyond heating something in a microwave. We’ve seen this across the socio-economic spectrum, from the very poor to the very wealthy.

      You’re right on about the tendency of folks to buy fresh whole foods then let them rot in the fridge. We had CSA customers tell us this regularly happened to them. They purchased a share intending to change the way they eat, but rarely had the energy to prepare the food, so they kept on eating processed foods and the CSA share went to waste.

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  6. Cynthia says:

    I’ve been monitoring this trend too and it concerns me. I guess it has a lot to do with both spouses working full time these days. Lots more single parent families too. Nutrition is compromised and it’s a lot more expensive to eat out. A local commercial landlord recently told me that small businesses are dropping like flies and restaurants are the only new businesses opening.

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    • Bill says:

      We live in an economically depressed area. It’s been this way since I was a kid. The population hasn’t changed in at least fifty years, nor have the socio-economic demographics. But when I was a kid there were very few restaurants around. Most people had gardens and nearly all the meals eaten around here were homecooked. But now there are easily 50 times more restaurants than when I was a kid (nearly all of them unhealthy fast-food or mega-portion joints) and the grocery stores are filled with frozen microwavable foods. So even thought our community is as poor as ever, it is spending its money now on food prepared by other people, rather than at home.

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  7. barnraised says:

    Interesting read. On a side note, I heard a talk this week on NPR about a restaurant in DC which was the first certified fully organic restaurant. They interviewed the woman that opened it. Her story is really interesting.

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    • Bill says:

      Even as we tend to increasingly eat in restaurants, there is also a trend toward healthier restaurant food. McDonald’s is losing market share to places like Chipolte. Recently McDonalds and other fast food places have announced that they won’t be selling pork from producers that use gestation crates, for example. So at least it seems that as we give up on preparing our own food, at least we’re starting to demand higher quality and more ethical practices when we eat out.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    This is so depressing Bill, but I’m glad you shared it. I am so grateful that I was able to spend years with my children as homeschoolers who were able to be a part of the kitchen and meal-making process. Cooking is more than just satisfying our hunger, food is the very foundation of who we are.

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    • Bill says:

      Amen Michelle. Without food we perish. Yet as a culture we seem to give it so little thought. I’m hopeful that is changing. Your children are fortunate to have been able to spend that time with you in the kitchen making meals.

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  9. Interestingly, as shifts go, most of the men in our family cook and share cooking responsibilities. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      Excellent. As we advocate for more homecooking and less reliance on processed/premade food we have run into the reality that in many households all the cooking (and clean up) responsibilities fall on one person–who often has a full-time job outside the home. That is unfair and counterproductive. We urge households to find a way to share those responsibilities so that meal preparation is fun, not drudgery.

      So good for you that you family gets that. I grew up in a culture where men were told to stay out of the kitchen, leaving men like me unable to feed myself when I left home. Not a wise policy.

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  10. Sue says:

    Very interesting post!
    I read years ago that it would come to this……..but I really didn’t believe it would. Same thing with grocery stores—the amount of aisle space devoted to frozen prepared dinners is staggering.
    And if you’ve ever tasted that stuff–OMG. Awful.
    I’m fortunate to have grown up in a time when eating out was a treat—a very rare treat….and I keep it that way gladly. Nothing beats a slow cooker pot roast or home made chicken pot pie…and the effort is well worth it. (actually, it occurs to me folks spend more time and effort running to restaurants/drive thru’s, etc)

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    • Bill says:

      Amen Sue. When I was growing up we would VERY rarely go out to eat. Even something like Hardees was a few-times-a-year treat. Instead we had to suffer through lots of homecooked meals of farm-raised food.

      My wife Cherie once quantified the time spent cooking a meal to the time spent getting takeout. She concluded that there really isn’t much time saved, if any, in going out for food versus cooking it yourself.

      As for the crap the frozen pre-cooked crap that people are eating, I couldn’t agree more. It’s sad that the people who are eating this junk don’t realize that the could spend less and eat delicious food, without having to spend all day cooking. Many of them just lack the most basic homemaking/cooking skills. They don’t know how to do anything other than push the start button on a microwave.

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  11. And isn’t it interesting that in the middle of this trend everyone wants enormous expensive gorgeous kitchens so they can what? Have an occasional party? I moan the loss of family sit-down meals…

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    • Bill says:

      Earlier today as I was discussing this with my wife she reminded me of people we knew back in our urban-life days who spent piles of money to have the most beautiful state-of-the-art kitchens, but never used them. It was common.

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  12. I agree that food writers and cooking shows are probably not helping as much as they should be to encourage home cooking. I believe cooking is in danger of becoming a spectator sport. I also agree that the double income household is a huge part of this statistic – as one income earner in a double income household, I can attest to the attraction of sitting in a comfortable booth, chatting with my family while someone else does all the food prep, cooking and clearing up of our meals. Depending on the restaurant, we can be in and out in 60-90 minutes, and have time left in the evening to do something together. That said, I’m a hard core “from scratch” cook, pro with leftovers, committed to local seasonal eating, so we mostly resist that attraction. We cave occasionally – but probably not even once a month.

    I was going to comment that we didn’t eat at restaurants much when we were growing up – really only for birthdays and celebrations, and while that’s true, I have to admit, we did a fair amount of take out throughout my youth – fish and chips mostly, and usually on Tuesday nights. Put it down to my British heritage, but there it is. It would be interesting to see the UK statistics on this topic, because they have a long history of what they call “take away” food – dating from medieval times and very prevalent throughout Victorian and Edwardian times. Many Asian countries too, have a food cart culture where hot, nourishing food can be had very cheaply and quickly, at least in urban areas.

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    • Bill says:

      Great points. I spent some time in Kuala Lampur and the food cart culture was prevalent there. I can’t remember what they called it but the food was excellent and very inexpensive.

      Take away food was easy for us to find in England, but hard to find in France and Spain. Their cultures didn’t seem to understand that concept.

      As I type this I’m wondering if outsourcing cooking tends to be an urban thing, so that maybe this trend is at least in part attributable to our becoming more urban and less rural. But as Sue commented, even the grocery store purchases are primarily of pre-cooked or processed food.

      I think an occasional restaurant meal is a good thing, as a treat and a break from the cooking/cleaning routine. But when it becomes the norm, we have a problem.

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  13. Sarah says:

    This is so horrifying and discouraging. Thanks for sharing the graph. Not only is the trend toward eating out hurting our health, it’s also hurting our wallets. Americans could be eating so much better if people felt they had the time and energy to put their resources toward buying quality ingredients and preparing food from scratch.

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    • Bill says:

      Amen! The two reasons most often given for eating poorly are “convenience” and “cost.” I’m convinced that the two reasons are actually convenience and a perceived preference for the taste of health-impairing foods. “Convenience” foods are much more expensive that homecooked meals of whole foods.

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  14. EllaDee says:

    Last night, after work before dinner time, we had the TV on, one eye watching the news while doing other things. All the advertisements were for fast food. After seeing several, the G.O. appeared restive. Hungry? I asked. Of course. But rather than ducking out for convenience food, we ate truly convenient food -leftovers from the fridge! There are so many influences at play, some subtle, some not so.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes exactly. Millions of dollars are being spent to convince us that we should leave the cooking to the corporations. Some of the brightest minds on the planet are devoted to persuading us to eat fast food, rather than healthy delicious leftovers.

      Like

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