This weekend, Mark Bittman wrote a terrific piece in The New York Times titled “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” The arguments and premise — that no matter how you measure it, home cooking is more affordable and healthy than convenience foods — essentially summarizes the message of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School which goes on sale this Thursday.
Thanks to both government subsidies for big agriculture and the commercialization of our food production, Americans spend less money on food as a percentage of their income than any other country, about 10 percent. (By comparison, we spent 25% on food in 1930; in Ethiopia, about 70% of their income goes toward food.) The “cheap factor” might be why we also waste more food than any country — about 40-plus percent — according to the excellent book American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom.
Here’s the fundamental question. If it’s cheaper and healthier to cook from scratch, why don’t more people do it? Michael Pollan noted that we collectively spend less time cooking in a piece in the Times back in 2009 (although this seems to have increased slightly in the onset of the recession.) I agree with all of Bittman’s commentary on the reasons, all of which are supported by a recent survey on the excuses people give for not cooking, which range from the notion of “time poverty,” that people don’t have time to cook, that cooking is too difficult, to their disdain for getting their kitchens dirty.
It doesn’t help that convenience foods have been engineered to be addictive and easy-to-eat (and over-eat), from its balance of the holy trinity of sugar, salt and fat to the amount of fiber it contains (or doesn’t). You want to know why cheap white bread or fast food doesn’t contain much fiber? Fiber fills you up. The less fiber a food product contains, the easier it is to eat (and purchase) more of it. All of that combined with decades of conflicted messaging from multinational food companies that cooking is not worth the effort created a confusing and complex food culture. After all, we live in a society where we’re told both they need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and that sugar-laden cereals are “part of a complete breakfast.” That kind of product engineering and bullshit marketing are among the reasons cited in a United Nations summit called for holding food and beverage companies accountable for both their products and the damage they inflict on individuals.
But one intriguing fact persists, and it’s at the heart of the new book. A main reason that 28% of people in that survey cited as their biggest obstacle to cooking? They don’t know how. You can tell people to eat steam broccoli and grilled lean proteins all you want, but if they don’t know how to steam or grill anything, than what do you expect? The glut of television shows don’t have much impact on getting people to cook, either. As one woman I met through the project in the new book said, “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve eaten Tuna Helper while watching Gordon Ramsey.”
Part of the project at the heart of the new book involved going through a group of volunteers’ kitchens to evaluate their fridges, pantries and freezers and talking to them about their relationship with food and cooking. We watched them cook a go-to meal and then offered them a series of cooking lessons with the aid of other culinary professionals. The result? Just a few simple lessons can help trigger small changes that yield big results. In one case, a volunteer cut her trips to the fast food lane from several times a week to less than twice per month. By doing so, she cut nearly 200,000 mostly empty calories over the course of a year, the equivalent of spending 550 hours on a treadmill. This is part of the reason that, as a general rule, the more people cook, the less they weigh.
Here are just a few key things I learned both from the project and subsequent research:
- Confidence: Cooks with more confidence cook more often, try more varied food choices and rely less on convenience foods. They tend to rethink value when shopping or purchasing food, often ditching bulk purchasing and boxed products. “I learned that fast food wasn’t a good value,” one project volunteer told me. “It costs less and takes less time to pack an apple and a sandwich. It just takes a little more planning.”
- Knife skills: Many inexperienced home cooks are put off by recipes due to the time they think it will take to prepare the ingredients. “Learning to use a knife changed everything,” one volunteer told me. “I don’t look at recipes anymore and think, ‘that’s too much work.’ I see ‘half a onion chopped’ and think ‘oh, that will take me under a minute.” I’m such a believe in the power of knife skills that I convinced the online cooking school Rouxbe to offer everyone on the planet a free knife skill lesson.
- Fundamentals: Depending on what individuals routinely consumed, learning to prepare a few staple meals shifted their buying and eating habits. One woman used to buy a lot of frozen dinners, but she ditched them as her cooking skills improved. “I figured out that I could make 12 servings of a casserole for the same price as a couple boxes which contained four. Plus, I know what’s in it and mine tastes way better.”
Bittman is right; what we need in our society is a fundamental shift in the way that people think about cooking. As he notes, cigarette smoking used to be cool. Now, smokers tend to be treated as social pariahs. How do we make the same kind of seismic shift to get people to take back their kitchens, one meal at a time? I’ll be talking about this very topic as part of an evening program titled “Power of Home Cooking” next week in New York City with authors Pam Anderson and Lauren Shockey at the Institute of Culinary Education on Tuesday, October 4th. If you’re in NYC and interested in this subject, I encourage you to come out!