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The data on cooking more, less, differently, etc.


Fat Guy
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This has come up on a few different topics. It seems axiomatic that people in the industrialized world are cooking at home less and less. But does that tell the whole story? At the same time that cooking is purportedly in decline in the population as a whole, we have see advances in home cooking like never before. You can now go into a retail store and buy a Sous-Vide Supreme. These forums are populated by plenty of home cooks who are purchasing the Modernist Cuisine six-volume set. Cooking blogs have exploded in number and popularity.

So, what does the research show? I did some quick googling and didn't find anything compelling to explain the overall state of cooking. Maybe one of you has a better handle on things.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Sort-of cheap dinner places like Friday's are everywhere and seem busy. The tastes of the country are being shifted to the kind of crap on their menus. Sweet or spicy glop on chicken/fish/beef +/- cheese; accompanied by fried vegetables. All take a little work to make at home, more than Mom wants after a long workday. Which is sad, because this stuff is pricey and it adds up quickly. Families are paying a ton of money that need not be spent.

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Looking at the proliferation of this kind of restaurant,all of which seem busy, suggests that we have to be spending more than 10 or 20 years ago. I'd love to see the Merrill Lynch investment paper on that category of restaurants. It'd have all that data you seek.

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There is a meaningful question to be asked, IMO, as to what constitutes "home cooking."

For example, if you go to the local supermarket and buy a raw chicken, some broccoli, some salad greens, button mushrooms and assorted vegetables which you then turn into a roast chicken, broccoli with cheese sauce and a garden salad, I think we can all agree that this constitutes "home cooking." But what if you go to the same supermarket and you pick up an already-cooked rotisserie chicken, frozen "broccoli florets in cheese sauce" and a bag of "salad fixings" which you are able to slap in the microwave or dump out of the bag... is that "home cooking"? Not in my book, it isn't. But is this difference captured in a way that makes a statistical comparison possible?

I don't necessarily think it's the case that a huge amount of this shift is explained by people trading eating at home for eating in restaurants (although I think people do eat out far more now than they did in the 1970s), but all you have to do is look at the departments in your local supermarket that sell fresh unprocessed ingredients (e.g., meat and vegetables) and compare that to the size of the departments selling foods that have been prepared to one extent or another. The number of families I know that eat most of their meals at home but don't really know how to cook because they rely mainly on prepared foods is astounding. I would be willing to bet that the average American 40something parent doesn't know how to roast a chicken. I might not win that bet, but it wouldn't be a stupid one to make.

I think it's a mistake to assume that people like us represent normality for Americans when it comes to a relationship with food and cooking. It says something, I believe, that people in America who have an interest in these things that would be considered absolutely normal in France or Italy are considered exceptional and called "foodies."

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A quick online search didn't suggest suggest any reliable, formal statistics. I'm not even certain whether/how such a study might be done. The impression I get (from discreetly looking over people's selections at Bed Bath & Beyond and Shoprite, and the crowds at Sur La Table, Broadway Panhandler, and the cooking wares shop at Chelsea Market) is that there's been a split: A minority seems to be taking cooking more seriously, and the majority seems to be cooking less, and relying increasingly on prepared elements.

I think many people have a sense of such a dichotomy, and that it is likely to perpetuate itself, as those who cook less may allow themselves to be convinced that there really is something esoteric about being able to create even a decent meal, and that, lacking the requisite expertise, they are better off relying on prepared or partially prepared items to make their meals.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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Many of these companies are publicly traded and therefore make the investment case for why restaurants are the beneficiary of secular trends. Currently it is "Emerging Market Growth" i.e. penetration of countries ike China. However years ago their investment case was that todays society is more about convenience, and the cost gap of eating out versus cooking in was tiny and perhaps negative if you put some economic cost to your time.

This goes back however to Sam's point that people are buying more prepared foods at the market which inherently are more expensive than the raw ingredients on average.

MSK

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I think most of this is due to the recent explosion and trend of being food "wise". It has truly become a trend to be knowledgeable about food, and the process all together. Which in turn spawned a huge following of "foodies", who are now self-proclaimed food critics, and dine out more often.

A vision without action is a Daydream; Action without vision is a Nightmare.

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I think it's a mistake to assume that people like us represent normality for Americans when it comes to a relationship with food and cooking. It says something, I believe, that people in America who have an interest in these things that would be considered absolutely normal in France or Italy are considered exceptional and called "foodies."

I agree. I feel the increase in interest concerning cooking is mostly superficial. Most people don’t cook nor do they even care to.

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I am constantly amazed (and saddened) when shopping in local supermarkets. Our basket is full of FOOD that we will take home and prepare. Many of my fellow shoppers mostly have prepared foods from the rotisserie chicken to frozen entrees (to say nothing of the bags and cans of snack food). Even our farmer's markets do a booming business in prepared foods to take home and serve. Costco is full of frozen meat products that are pre-seasoned...and even better butcher shops have pre-made stuffed and marinated items.

There must be an immense market for these products or the shops wouldn't carry them although the more 'convenience' foods that are available the more people who don't/can't cook will take advantage of them.

Do any schools still have Home-economics classes as part of their curiculum?

We noticed the same thing when visiting London recently with the exception that at least there, the prepared foods contained only food and virtually no preservatives. The Use By date really means something in the UK - unlike similar products in Canada (at least - probably same in USA) that will remain looking edible (moot point!) for a week or more. Of course living in central London often means a very small flat with a minimalist kitchen.

Llyn

Llyn Strelau

Calgary, Alberta

Canada

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This goes back however to Sam's point that people are buying more prepared foods at the market which inherently are more expensive than the raw ingredients on average.

At the risk of steering this discussion inappropriately political, but still focused on one of the core reasons behind this trend, I think a lot of this has to do with the transition to the two-income family becoming standard. Part of this, of course, has to do with increased opportunities for women in the workplace and other things that can be deemed "good." And the other part of it has to do with the fact of the increasing economic stratification of American society and the fact that the only reason we still have a middle class is the transition to the two income model (i.e., that two incomes are now required in order to provide a similar middle class standard of living compared to what was possible with a single income 40-50 years ago). It is a fact that real cooking from scratch takes time, and someone has to take the time to do that cooking. If both parents are out of the house at 8:00 AM and not getting home until 6:30 PM, it's hard to imagine where they're finding the time to do a lot of cooking. There was a time (as in my own childhood) when this was solved with lots of casseroles and reheated leftovers during the week. But popular tastes and health concerns have moved American dietary practices away from that kind of eating, and I think there are now plenty of families that believe they should be having something "freshly made" and different every night.

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Agreeing with slkinsey but I also feel home cooking is no longer a part of your average family's skill-set, any more than making clothes is. All part of the whole Industrial Revolution, specialization of labor thing. And it might have the same roots - it's hard to practice and pass your skills on to your kids when you're spending most of your waking hours at the workplace.

Not to beat a dead horse any further but we should make safe, nutritious, economic cooking (home economics, practical nutrition, whatever you want to call it) mandatory from the Jr. High levels.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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I quickly learned that home cooking is actually very fun, when you have the time. the keyword being time, which we all seem to have less and less of.. even a master cook / home kitchen supermom will want to take a break and eat out once in a while..then those once in a whiles become more and more habitual, and soon enough everyone is at the cheese cake factory every wednesdays or something.

Jade Shing!

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This is the best data I've found so far, but it's not as nuanced as it needs to be: from Harris Interactive

It's America-only. Some highlights:

While four in five U.S. adults (79%) say they enjoy cooking, just three in ten (30%) say they love it and almost half (49%) say they enjoy it when they have the time. One in five Americans say they either do not enjoy cooking (14%) or do not cook (7%).
Two in five (41%) say they prepare meals at home five or more times a week and three in ten (29%) do so three to four times a week. One in five (19%) of U.S. adults prepare meals at home one to two times a week and 11% say they rarely or never prepare meals at home.
There is also the issue of cutting corners to save time; three-quarters of those who prepare meals at home (75%) say they very often or occasionally will use pre-prepped and/or frozen ingredients and kitchen appliances such as microwaves and toaster ovens to both speed up the process and clean-up involved.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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So what these statistics suggest is that not very many people are doing much "real cooking" at home. Around 70% prepare meals at home with any regularity. And only around 17.5% do a lot of "from scratch" cooking.

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I think about this issue (whether the average American cooks anymore) at the beginning of the semester, when my adult students turn in their weeklong food diaries. Even in a food-centric city like New Orleans, it seems that very few people are doing any meaningful weeknight cooking. Routinely, in a class of 20, half will eat the weekend's takeout leftovers on M/T/W, eat packaged foods on Th, and start the cycle again on Friday.

Specialized, hobbyist cooking might be on the rise, but "subsistence" weeknight cooking is damn near dead. (Hey, somebody needs to provide a market for the cheap calories generated by subsidized Big Ag...right? Pass the boneless Tyson wings...burp.)

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How are you backing out the 17.5 number?

If "75% say they very often or occasionally will use pre-prepped and/or frozen ingredients" then that means that only 25% do most of their cooking from scratch. 25% of 70% is 17.5%.

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Samuel Gompers said, "Time is the most valuable thing on earth." There is only so much of it to go around and time spent cooking does not have the value that many other things have to the modern American family. That is unfortuante, but I think true.

I keep hearing about the lack of time, but seriously, I can put together a good dozen cheap, from-scratch meals in a half hour or less each, from prep. start to serving. I'm not talking about the more elaborate things I make when I have the time, but the stuff I put together when I've been working all day, have no desire to do another thing, and my boyfriend comes in the door, beams, and says 'So, what's for dinner?'

I honestly believe that a lot of the time/effort that is supposed to be saved by many prepared foods is pure fiction, promulgated by marketing firms (which, to be fair, is their job).

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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Samuel Gompers said, "Time is the most valuable thing on earth." There is only so much of it to go around and time spent cooking does not have the value that many other things have to the modern American family. That is unfortuante, but I think true.

I keep hearing about the lack of time, but seriously, I can put together a good dozen cheap, from-scratch meals in a half hour or less each, from prep. start to serving. I'm not talking about the more elaborate things I make when I have the time, but the stuff I put together when I've been working all day, have no desire to do another thing, and my boyfriend comes in the door, beams, and says 'So, what's for dinner?'

Really? Something that's actually cooked. Like what, for example?

I mean, I can do something like spaghetti cacio e pepe in around 30 minutes, but that's hardly something I should be eating 4 nights a week.

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How are you backing out the 17.5 number?

If "75% say they very often or occasionally will use pre-prepped and/or frozen ingredients" then that means that only 25% do most of their cooking from scratch. 25% of 70% is 17.5%.

That's why I said above that the survey is not nuanced enough. They lump together "very often or occasionally." Most of the best cooks I know would say yes to the "occasionally" part of that. While over-reliance on pre-prepped products is on the whole a problem for good cooking, there's a certain amount of it that's fine. So I don't think it's possible to get a good measurement from those data.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Some data for Canada. Overview of Canadian eating habits

This data is very flawed because "fast food" includes coffee, which getting out is a fine Canadian tradition. It also does not differentiate between home cooking from scratch vrs. a Lean Cuisine. Still, it does provide some information; things like the direct decline of home cooking with increasing income.

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How are you backing out the 17.5 number?

If "75% say they very often or occasionally will use pre-prepped and/or frozen ingredients" then that means that only 25% do most of their cooking from scratch. 25% of 70% is 17.5%.

That's why I said above that the survey is not nuanced enough. They lump together "very often or occasionally." Most of the best cooks I know would say yes to the "occasionally" part of that. While over-reliance on pre-prepped products is on the whole a problem for good cooking, there's a certain amount of it that's fine. So I don't think it's possible to get a good measurement from those data.

Right, I agree. But, one could also point out that respondents to surveys often portray themselves more favorably than reality. Also my 70% included the 29% who prepared food at home "3 or 4 times a week," meaning that for some number of them it was only three times a week, meaning that on four days out of seven they were not preparing food at home. All of these things mean that my (probably meaningless due to the lack of specificity in the data) parsing of their figures to 17.5% "from scratch" cooks might be too generous. My anecdotal experience suggests that it's probably not more than 20%, though.

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Samuel Gompers said, "Time is the most valuable thing on earth." There is only so much of it to go around and time spent cooking does not have the value that many other things have to the modern American family. That is unfortuante, but I think true.

I keep hearing about the lack of time, but seriously, I can put together a good dozen cheap, from-scratch meals in a half hour or less each, from prep. start to serving. I'm not talking about the more elaborate things I make when I have the time, but the stuff I put together when I've been working all day, have no desire to do another thing, and my boyfriend comes in the door, beams, and says 'So, what's for dinner?'

Really? Something that's actually cooked. Like what, for example?

I mean, I can do something like spaghetti cacio e pepe in around 30 minutes, but that's hardly something I should be eating 4 nights a week.

Roughly, the short programme goes like this:

Start heating skillet, and water for rice or pasta (the electric kettle means the water is good to go in about two minutes).

Hoik some cutlets or filets out of the fridge, blot, salt, rub with oil on both sides (this makes a lot less mess to clean off the glass stovetop, afterwards; pepper and herbs get added at the end, since I don't love the flavour of incinerated seasonings)

Start rice or pasta.

When the amount of time left on the rice or pasta is that which it will take to cook the meat, the meat goes in.

Prep fresh vegetable: this means slicing some tomatoes or peppers, washing some carrots, or removing some baby greens (prewashed) from their bag. Alternatively, I may quickly blanch some peas or the like, which then get a small dab of butter, some fresh herbs, a little pepper.

Flip meat.

Rice off heat/drain pasta.

Meat off heat; quickly deglaze pan if temp. used did not incinerate juices.

Spend a minute or two seasoning; I have some fresh herbs in pots on the window sill, and usually snip in one of those, and some tomato product may be involved.

Plate.

Serve.

Sometimes, I also just do something pasta- or rice-based (add-ins may be beans, the baby shrimp that are moving towards their bin date, shredded, leftover chicken, etc.); there's always a fresh or very briefly cooked vegetable as a side or component.

I keep broth ready to go in the refrigerator, which comes in handy for deglazing a pan. Cheap-o port and whiskey are useful too.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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