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


Fat Guy
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Last year, I was invited to join a local 'gourmet' supper club group that meets in a different member's home each month. I attended two gatherings and was appalled by the food offered up. Virtually everything that people brought was made from packaged mixes, frozen foods or heat n eat cold case items. -And not good things like olive-bar items, either! I'm talking about biscuits from a can wrapped around pre-cooked deli items, and, mac n cheese from the blue box dressed up with a little cheap salsa from a jar. I amazed the group by bringing real chocolate mousse the first time, although there was much consternation about the fact that it wasn't a mix they could buy and make for themselves later.

Anyway, I am seeing a lot of food network followers who think they are 'into' good food, but sadly are simply trying to cook to Sandra Lee's standards. I suspect the Dunning-Kruger effect is part of what's going on.

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I think it's more a matter of choosing to cook for oneself instead of (watching TV/hanging out at a bar/playing video games/arguing about politics/reading lurid novels/writing Harry Potter fanfiction/whatever). In other words, it's not so much that people don't have time as that they'd rather spend their time doing something else.

And, again, they often don't have confidence in their skills even if they do want to cook. Thus the importance of training outside the home.

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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Here are some food expenditure statistics from the USDA;

http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/data/

One thing that I notice is that the percentage of income spent out of the house is fairly stable over time, but the percentage spent for "in-home" has shrunk considerably. These tables are mainly about where people are spending money, not so much about what they are spending it on.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Interesting topic! I've found that people love to talk about food and cooking but it's often very different my views on the topic. When chatting about recipes, for instance, a former colleague always asked "Is it easy?" - Well it is for me, but probably not for you would have been the honest answer. "Is it fast?" was almost always the next question.

Generally, people at the Fast-And-Easy level are looking for short cut, no labour, no effort ways to put something together that looks like a magazine shoot. I've subsequently stopped responding to requests for recipes/ideas that fill this particular niche and why would I - the web world is filled with them.

I recall the reaction of a long ago dinner guest when she learned how long the braised short ribs had taken to prepare; I think she was incredulous that someone would actually take the time and effort to do it and thought it mildly hilarious that they would do so.

I've adjusted my expectations and simply acknowledge that most people don't approach food and meal preparation at home the way I do. Those that do are like a gift.

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...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?'

See, a lot of people would just stare at him and say, "I don't know - it's YOUR turn!"

annnnddd... Friday's it is. :laugh:

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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.

We do a lot of quick cooking and my husband's on a low-carb (argh) diet, but a typical meal would be: Broccoli rabe sauteed in olive oil with garlic and red peppers; salad of tomato, cukes, onion and Greek olives with some feta crumbled on top; and some thin pork cutlets sauteed in olive oil served with pan juices deglazed with lemon juice. If I get the water boiling for the rabe quickly enough, this meal doesn't take more than 1/2 hour and involves very little "skill" -- except for the knowledge of doing it at all and working out what should be cooked first.

Of course, it also takes shopping for things that work together and can be cooked quickly. Experience helps.

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Another factor to consider with any study is that the data is inherently flawed. I find that people tell you what they think you want to hear or what they perceive as most socially acceptable. I have friends who go out for most meals based on my observations and conversations with them. When you ask them specifically how often they cook at home suddenly the figure is plumped up. "I made the most wonderful chile, remember, last week" - um no you made that several weeks ago....

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Interesting topic! I've found that people love to talk about food and cooking but it's often very different my views on the topic. When chatting about recipes, for instance, a former colleague always asked "Is it easy?" - Well it is for me, but probably not for you would have been the honest answer. "Is it fast?" was almost always the next question.

Generally, people at the Fast-And-Easy level are looking for short cut, no labour, no effort ways to put something together that looks like a magazine shoot. I've subsequently stopped responding to requests for recipes/ideas that fill this particular niche and why would I - the web world is filled with them.

I recall the reaction of a long ago dinner guest when she learned how long the braised short ribs had taken to prepare; I think she was incredulous that someone would actually take the time and effort to do it and thought it mildly hilarious that they would do so.

I've adjusted my expectations and simply acknowledge that most people don't approach food and meal preparation at home the way I do. Those that do are like a gift.

Reminded me of this post from another (non-food-related) forum I frequent:

Why does everyone who cooks say something like, "Oh that's such a simple recipe, it only takes 29385729587897 minutes to do." It looks seriously yummy but so time-and-money-consuming! (I can replace chicken broth with vegetable broth and replace frying the beef with like... pre-cooked vegetarian beef, right?) But, erms, the slurry stuff you can buy at a good Chinese supermarket... I thought that they only sold oyster sauce in North America Chinese food stores, but it turns out they also sell thick soy sauce stuff that is about as viscous as oyster sauce. No corn starch stirring there! *nods*

(Context: I was trying to teach her how to thicken a sauce with cornstarch).

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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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?

Another grey area: And what if you use these prepared ingredients as ingredients instead of just as a meal? For example, using the meat from a rotisserie chicken to make chicken enchilads or burritos. Or using the already prepared veggies from a grocery store salad bar as ingredients for a stir fry or soup? I'm still cooking...I'm just not cooking like the generation or two before me who would cook everything from scratch.

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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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"?

"Prepared foods" in grocery stories is a fast-growing category, but one thing you have to consider is that is not necessarily just a substitute for cooking, but also for a restaurant meal. Which is to say, the consumer isn't thinking "I'm going to get this instead of cooking," but "I'm going to get this instead of take-out." Possibly more so in the last couple of years as the recession has forced some to cut back on restaurant trips. My personal observation has been that those prepared food bars that every store has now are very popular with the office-lunch crowd.

Also, not knowing how to cook doesn't necessarily stop people from trying, at least based on the number of times some former neighbors set off the fire alarms.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Good point, Toliver.

Here's another definition question:

What about using frozen veg? Is that cooking?

The only step skipped is washing it.

Why is prebagged salad not cooking? Does personally washing the worms off lettuce intrinsically improve the taste and nutritive content?

Or was that just the third part of the meal that included frozen cheese sauce?

Does heating leftovers count as cooking?

Because if it does, we cook 7 days a week, but if it doesnt, then we cook 3x.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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Good point, Toliver.

Here's another definition question:

What about using frozen veg? Is that cooking?

Most frozen veg is not precooked, just preprepped. There certainly seem to be more preprepped options in the grocery--veg cut and washed, salad greens premixed, that sort of thing. If you still have to cook it, then it's cooking. Unless you're eating it frozen.

Does heating leftovers count as cooking?

No, but it does count as a home-cooked meal. I mean, if you make a lasagna, and it's enough for two nights, that's two home-cooked meals, though you only cooked once. When I make soup, I like to make a big batch and put extra in the freezer. There's certainly nothing wrong with using your effort efficiently.

In trying to sort through data on what people are actually spending their food money on, it seems that while there's a lot of use of prepared and processed foods, there's still a fair amount of cooking going on, even if it is fairly rudimentary. People are still buying an awful lot of tray-packs of meat, cartons of eggs, butter, cheese, raw veg, etc. Not sure what the historical trends are though.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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I largely share Moopheus's thoughts.

Using frozen vegetables that are combined with other ingredients and cooked passes the sniff test for "cooking." So does using leftover rotisserie chicken to make enchiladas. So does using prewashed lettuce in a salad. And so on.

Rewarming food that you have cooked yourself, I think, also qualifies as an extension of "cooking" and can be considered a "home cooked meal night" whereas rewarming restaurant or prepared food leftovers does not, unless those foods are substantially repurposed/transformed in a secondary preparation.

What does not pass the sniff test for "cooking" are foods that are prepared to such an extent that the "cook" does little more than apply rewarming heat, and sometimes not even that. And sometimes it can be a pretty fine line. If, for example, you tear up some pre-washed romaine lettuce and combine it with some pre-sliced mushrooms, pre-sliced red onion, boxed croutons, pre-crumbled blue cheese and salted pecans from a jar... to me that counts as some form of "home cooking" even though you did very little work. If, on the other hand, you unzipped a bag that already contained those ingredients and simply dumped it out into a salad bowl? Not so much.

--

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Anecdotal observation... in Sonoma County which I think we can all agree is synonomous with people interested in cooking, wine, fine dining etc., there is a small chain of high end local grocery stores called Oliver's... nice local wine & cheese selection, local produce, higher quality dry goods etc., kind of like a bigger footprint, local version of Whole Foods...

The produce section is about 500 square feet, there is a real butcher shop but most of what they sell is packaged... and most edible food space is devoted to prepared foods & packaged foods. On any given day from 4pm to 7pm.. the place is swamped with people picking up medicore prepared foods for dinner... but hey they do a very brisk business in cooking & restaurant magazines!

If Sonoma County is as good as it gets for a relatively urban location... then the news can't be all that great.

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Although to be fair.. in Sonoma County there is another micro chain of Mexican grocers called Lola's... the produce section is 1,000 sq ft (total store size is about 1/3 of Oliver's) there is a real butcher, the only meats they sell packaged are bacon, ham & chorizo... clientele is probably 80% Mexican, 20% White... cooking seems to be alive & well in immigrant communities (although I can see there is a visible shift towards to process foods relative to the motherland).

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I largely share Moopheus's thoughts.

Using frozen vegetables that are combined with other ingredients and cooked passes the sniff test for "cooking." So does using leftover rotisserie chicken to make enchiladas. So does using prewashed lettuce in a salad. And so on.

Rewarming food that you have cooked yourself, I think, also qualifies as an extension of "cooking" and can be considered a "home cooked meal night" whereas rewarming restaurant or prepared food leftovers does not, unless those foods are substantially repurposed/transformed in a secondary preparation.

What does not pass the sniff test for "cooking" are foods that are prepared to such an extent that the "cook" does little more than apply rewarming heat, and sometimes not even that. And sometimes it can be a pretty fine line. If, for example, you tear up some pre-washed romaine lettuce and combine it with some pre-sliced mushrooms, pre-sliced red onion, boxed croutons, pre-crumbled blue cheese and salted pecans from a jar... to me that counts as some form of "home cooking" even though you did very little work. If, on the other hand, you unzipped a bag that already contained those ingredients and simply dumped it out into a salad bowl? Not so much.

While repurposing prepared foods might count as cooking skill... one must also consider the loss of control over ingredient quality. In my experience above regarding Oliver's... yeah the produce section has local organic stuff.. but they don't use any of it in their prepared foods (okay occassionally when things are in season & really cheap... Sebastopol / Gravenstein apples, Crane Melons etc.,) but is not extensive nor representative.

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The produce section is about 500 square feet, there is a real butcher shop but most of what they sell is packaged... and most edible food space is devoted to prepared foods & packaged foods. On any given day from 4pm to 7pm.. the place is swamped with people picking up medicore prepared foods for dinner... but hey they do a very brisk business in cooking & restaurant magazines!

I think there are two things at play there: One is profit margin. I suspect that the margin on prepared foods is better than 'raw' food. For one, it is harder to price compare, but more importantly, it offers a good value proposition to the consumer. I think the other factor is, as another poster mentioned, that the prepared foods are restaurant replacements. So for the store, those prepared foods present a new market, which means more money coming in. Doubling the produce section size won't make any more money unless the selection is so fantastic that you can draw people away from someone elses produce section; a tough proposition unless the competition is really awful. But I think it is a much easier proposition to take a chunk out of the restaurants, between the cost savings and likely perceived health benefit, not to mention time, schedule, etc.

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I do have also the impression that home baking has fallen off more dramatically than home cooking generally. Though it's hard to say for certain. It's still something that a lot of people do once in a while, but not as regular habit; it's just for special occasions. Packaged cookies and cakes and cake mixes, frozen doughs, and that sort of thing outsell basic baking supplies by a large margin. Pillsbury doesn't even promote its own flour on its web site; more than 90 percent of flour production in the US goes to commercial bakeries. Of course, baking products were among the earliest commercial convenience products; food processors have been trying for more than a century to eliminate home baking. I suppose maybe we should be hopeful that after that much time, they haven't succeeded completely.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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I've found through consumer research that to most people the only thing that doesn't qualify as "cooking" is a complete meal that is either microwaved or popped in the oven. As long as you add something to it, using prepared foods is "cooking". Even if it's just a dollop of sour cream or a sprig of cilantro.

Interesting that the other day, some coworkers and I were discussing whether we were in the minority that cooked from scratch or not. I said I was and proceeded to relate that just the night before I made fish tacos, although made from leftover red snapper that I'd grilled the night before. Then as I was telling them how I made the tacos, I realized I'd used a few prepared ingredients. I bought house made corn tortillas and salsa from the Mexican grocer. And I mixed the salsa with Hellman's mayonnaise for the sauce. Of course I sliced up my own cabbage, limes, cilantro and avocados, but this was actually my version of a quick weeknight dinner when I'm pressed for time. My coworkers totally considered that my dinner was "from scratch." What I did is what they do on weekends when they actually have time to "cook".

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The produce section is about 500 square feet, there is a real butcher shop but most of what they sell is packaged... and most edible food space is devoted to prepared foods & packaged foods. On any given day from 4pm to 7pm.. the place is swamped with people picking up medicore prepared foods for dinner... but hey they do a very brisk business in cooking & restaurant magazines!

I think there are two things at play there: One is profit margin. I suspect that the margin on prepared foods is better than 'raw' food. For one, it is harder to price compare, but more importantly, it offers a good value proposition to the consumer. I think the other factor is, as another poster mentioned, that the prepared foods are restaurant replacements. So for the store, those prepared foods present a new market, which means more money coming in. Doubling the produce section size won't make any more money unless the selection is so fantastic that you can draw people away from someone elses produce section; a tough proposition unless the competition is really awful. But I think it is a much easier proposition to take a chunk out of the restaurants, between the cost savings and likely perceived health benefit, not to mention time, schedule, etc.

However.. Lola's also has a prepared foods counter and we can assume that the margin differential would also be similiar.. they are exposed to the same local taxes, regulations, high rents etc., I think the difference in the offering is almost purely Pull (Demand) driven rather than Push (Supply) driven.

My analysis of the typical "American" (meaning people who have been here for enough generations to share more in commone with other Americans than with the mother country) family in Wine Country is that eating together at home is very important, they are more gastronomically literate than most of the country, care & are conscious about what they put in their bellies... but still the lifestyle & lack of cooking skill is preventing a more robust home cooking culture.

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I've found through consumer research that to most people the only thing that doesn't qualify as "cooking" is a complete meal that is either microwaved or popped in the oven. As long as you add something to it, using prepared foods is "cooking". Even if it's just a dollop of sour cream or a sprig of cilantro.

At the most fundamental level, cooking is the application of heat to food, and food is cooked when certain biochemical changes occur in the food. These changes may vary depending on the method used and the type of food, but the end result is generally an altered state that is distinct from raw. Basically, these two things have to occur for there to be "cooking." Just rewarming already cooked food doesn't really cut it, and mixing raw or precooked ingredients doesn't either. This isn't to say that these aren't useful methods of making a home-prepared meal, but they aren't really cooking. If you make a simple salad of say greens, tomatoes, and vinaigrette, do you say you "cooked" the salad? No, of course not. There are certainly plenty of times in the summer when my dinner may be such a salad because it is just too hot to actually cook.

Beyond that of course, is a host of issues, such as cooking skills, food quality, and economy. The industrialization of the food supply over the course of the 20th century has changed the way people use their kitchens, even for those of us who still like to cook from basic ingredients and have the skills to do so. What used to be fairly clear distinctions of categories have blurred. While not all the changes have necessarily been bad, a price has been extracted--change does not come for free.

Edited by Moopheus (log)

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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  • 2 weeks later...

No hard data but it seems like those who really "cook" around here are in a small minority. Some experiential observations:

1. We sell a lot of cheese ("cheese shares", technically) to one CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organization with which we've become good friends with the owner. His core business is building and supplying weekly baskets/bags/boxes of in-season, fresh, organic produce to his members. His biggest obstacle in keeping members, and for getting new members is that so few people know what to do with non-pre-prepared foods. A large part of his work is teaching members how to prepare and make meals with the produce he is providing. Cooking demos/classes, recipe sheets, newsletters, visiting chefs etc are all offered free of charge to members. Most of the recipe/meal suggestions are designed to be as "fast" and "easy" as possibly. It's like everybody has some kind of culinary ADHD.

2. My shopping habits sound similar to lstrelau's. I buy ingredients. Sometimes to the point that my grocery list looks more like I'm stocking a Conestoga wagon for the long migration west than doing the week's shopping (produce, sugar, flour, coffee, dry beans, salt, gun powder (oops)...) I'm used to my shopping cart drawing stares and comments, "You one of them survivalists? heh, heh, heh". The cashiers have trouble ringing up my order, "Ummm, what is that?". "They're Brussel Sprouts". "YUCK!, Do you know the price code number for them?" It's pathetic. Funny, but pathetic.

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