Is cooking necessary?

I’ve written about the necessity, or lack thereof, of cooking before, 7 years ago and 5 years ago.  Since then we’ve been bombarded by cooking shows, cooking competitions, an entire network dedicated to cooking and a non-stop onslaught of recipes and cooking videos on the internet and in print.  Pinterest is overflowing with recipes.  Print magazines still pump out recipes.  Even the Wall Street Journal has recipes!  Who is cooking all this stuff when the signs of the death of cooking are unmistakeable:

  • Grab ‘n Go snacking all day is the new normal.  According to the NPD Group, the number of people who snack 2-4 times a day has grown in just the past 2 years.
  • People are eating fewer actual meals, particularly millennials and the elderly.
  • Meal kit businesses are growing.
  • The average number of items served at a home meal is down 27% in the past 3 decades, to 2.2 items
  • Meals at home are increasingly one items affairs, with everything mixed together (think pizza).
  • Shoppers increasingly buy take-out food rather than pantry items.
  • Grocery stores are under pressure to reduce the number of stores and the size of any new stores.

Why is this happening?

  • Millennials don’t know how to cook; no one taught them, probably because their parents didn’t know much about cooking and didn’t have time.
  • Single-person households are another new norm, and a person living alone isn’t likely to spend time shopping, cooking and cleaning up for one.
  • Older adults, free of family responsibilities, aren’t interested in cooking and cleaning up anymore.
  • No one has time.  Long commutes and busy lives mean cooking and family meals fall by the wayside.

But perhaps the main reason is this: there’s plenty of ready-to-eat food, so cooking isn’t necessary.  I don’t think there are 10’s of millions of people out there, snacking their way through the day, bemoaning the fact they they aren’t in the kitchen chopping and cooking and cleaning up.  Cooking used to be essential for eating; now it isn’t and it turns out few people were actually that interested in food preparation.

What’s the impact on healthy eating?  Is from-scratch food preparation essential for that?  If you don’t cook are you doomed to unhealthy eating?  No and No.

First let’s get over the idea that cooking equals healthy eating.  There are plenty of home-cooked meals that leave a lot to be desired: hot dogs and potato chips, packaged mac ‘n cheese, Re-heated fried chicken nuggets and french fries.  The list can go on.  Plenty of people think this is home cooking, but I wouldn’t call it healthful.  Healthy cooking requires some skills and some effort.  You need to have ingredients available; you need to pay attention to expiration dates and freshness and shop for groceries as necessary; you need to have decent equipment; you need to have time and you’ll have to clean up.  There are certainly people who meet all those criteria.  Some of them may prepare fresh food every day.  Some of them may see food preparation as a weekend hobby.

If you don’t cook, you’ve got plenty of options for healthy eating, but of course you have to make those choices.  You can rely on fast food take out or frozen pizza, or you can choose healthier foods with lots of vegetables.  Or you can use one of the growing number of meal kit companies and pretend to cook.  I haven’t used them myself, but I’ve talked to friends who have.  The consensus of these people — all of whom are older and do know how to cook — “meh”.  They feel that they could have done just as well picking their own ingredients and cooking from scratch for a lot less money.

For people who have no kitchen skills, perhaps this is the future of “cooking”, sort of like the old Paint By Numbers art that was popular years ago.  You don’t do anything really, you just put it together like a puzzle.  Most of the meal choices from those companies look reasonably healthy.  The main drawback: it’s all cooked.  No fresh salads.  Another drawback for some people: many of the vegetarian items are lacking protein.  And of course it’s all expensive compared to just buying the ingredients yourself.  $10 a serving for pasta and vegetables?!  But for plenty of busy people with zero cooking skills and sufficient income, this is the solution to eating at home and feeling like you’re eating something better than hot dogs or boxed mac and cheese.

One thing that bugs me no end is the endless stream of cutesy pie pretentious recipes in magazines and on the internet.  Food and ingredients that should be simple are tricked out in some way that makes the whole thing look impossibly complicated.  They typically involve expensive, exotic and unfamiliar ingredients.  Here’s an example, sponsored by the California Almond Board: Almond flour galette with gorgonzola, green apple, fennel and sliced almonds.  Seriously?  Who is going to make that?  Certainly not one of the growing number of people with no cooking skills.  Way too much trouble.  Just eat an apple and some almonds and call it a day.

I’m actually not terribly concerned that people are cooking less and less.  I feel the same way.  When you’ve got a lot of other things going on, it starts to get really annoying to have to think about preparing dinner.  Everything else you’re doing has to come to a screeching halt.  Making any new recipes requires paying attention the ingredients and preparation times.  Then there the inevitable cleaning up.  No wonder people use take-out or meal kits, or just go to a restaurant.

If you feel vaguely guilty about not cooking, if you’re bombarded by complicated “healthy” recipes that you think you should be preparing, relax.  The real point of healthy eating is the eating part.  How the food gets to your table isn’t the point.  And not cooking is not an excuse to just rely on processed junk food.  In the 21st Century, we’ve got plenty of options for choosing healthy meals that have nothing to do with from-scratch cooking.

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