Is There A Crisis in Home Cooking?

November 3, 2010 § 9 Comments

Is it true that fewer and fewer of us are cooking at home?

Recently I read a poll by Harris Interactive finding that nearly 60% of Americans eat at least half of their meals out each week.

And last week, I attended a conversation between Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer, and Ruth Reichl, author of multiple food memoirs and former editor-in-chief of the sadly now-defunct Gourmet. The dialogue encompassed a number of topics about food today, but the thing that struck me most was a conversation about this strange dichotomy in our society, where on the one hand we’re more food-obsessed than ever — watching shows like Top Chef, salivating over food porn and dishing about the hot restaurant in town — yet on the other, fewer people are cooking at home, from scratch, on a regular basis. Bittman and Reichl noted that people seem to feel that if they can’t make the restaurant-quality dishes they see on the Food Network, what’s the point?

But the thing is, that’s not the point. Home cooks generally don’t, and maybe even can’t, cook like restaurant chefs (I certainly don’t!): they don’t have a line of cooks, each focused on some minute detail like shaving carrot ribbons, they don’t have all day to put dinner on the table and they don’t have a restaurant-grade kitchen and clean-up staff.

The point of cooking at home is not to feel like you’re in a restaurant (because if it is, why not just go to one?), but to create food, from scratch, that is so much better for us, in myriad ways:

  • It’s cheaper and healthier
  • It strengthens your connections, to what it takes to make good food, to recipes that are favorites of family and friends, to your partner or child that’s helping you prepare and serve the meal (or who’s at least enjoying eating it!)
  • If you buy local ingredients, it helps to sustain your economy and community

At the farmers’ market

To be fair, we’re all busy, and it does take time to shop, prep, cook and present a meal. You can’t cook food from scratch in 10 minutes or less, unless you’re eating a salad with few ingredients, and even then — you’d have to be pretty speedy to wash, chop and assemble that fast.

But it is possible to cook healthy weeknight meals in 30-45 minutes or less from scratch, especially if you have access to fresh, local ingredients that don’t need much fussing to taste good. And, if you eat less meat, which many argue is better for you and the environment (click here for more info on that topic), that cuts down on cooking time too.

Romanesco broccoli, Dirty Girl Farm stand

Spurred on by the Bittman-Reichl discussion, I wanted to share:

  • How we menu plan and shop for the week
  • Our actual menu plan for this week — plus a link to a lot of other menu plans
  • A recipe for one of the meatless menu plan dinners that can be made in 30 minutes from scratch — and that even my husband, who generally insists on eating animal protein at every meal, enjoys (I’ll share this in a post later this week; this one is already quite long!)

I’m posting this now for three reasons:

1 — I’d love to know if the Harris poll, Bittman and Reichl are right — are we facing a home cooking crisis where fewer of us are cooking from scratch? Or do you cook at home regularly?

2 — If you don’t cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post and the tools within it might inspire you to plan and cook some healthy, simple and tasty meals at home this week or next

3 — If you do cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post might inspire you to go to the farmers’ market this week, try something new and bring it home for dinner. (If you live in S.F., you could head to one of the markets listed here.)

Winter squash at the Castro Farmers’ Market

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MENU PLANNING AND FOOD SHOPPING

Here are the three easy steps we take weekly to plan and shop for our meals:

1 — Plan how many meals I need to make: Every Saturday morning, I use this template (Menu Plan & Farmers Market List) to map out how many meals we’ll eat at home. Some weeks, you might be traveling, or have work or social lunch or dinner plans, so this helps you see how much food you need to buy and cook so that it doesn’t go to waste.

2 — Go to the farmers’ market: I like to see what’s in season before I decide what to cook. While it may seem weird to go shopping without deciding your ingredients first, this method leads you to eat what’s freshest that week and to try new things (for example, we tried sunchokes this week — amazing! More on that soon). And by using the meal plan template, you know the volume of food you need to buy (e.g., 10 servings of fruit; vegetables for two people for five dinners).

3 — Decide on dishes and go to the grocery store: Armed with a bagful of produce, I write down in the meal planning template what dishes to make. So, if I nabbed a great end-of-the-season eggplant, I’ll make Indian baingan bharta if we’re going meatless, or moussaka if we want some meat. Then I’ll write a grocery list to buy the remaining ingredients (dairy, eggs, meat, cereals) — and I’ll write them in the order I walk through the store so I can get in and out in 30 minutes. Here’s the completed menu plan template and grocery list: Menu Plan Completed & Grocery List.

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ACTUAL MENU PLANS

You saw above our menu plan with what we’re eating this week. You’ll see that I usually cook enough for dinners so that we have leftovers for lunch. Here’s a link to This Week For Dinner, a blog where the writer posts her weekly menu plans every Sunday and her readers post theirs (click here). Lots of ideas!

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How many times per week do you cook at home?

How do you approach menu planning and food shopping?

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§ 9 Responses to Is There A Crisis in Home Cooking?

  • craig says:

    A few years ago, I suddenly found myself forced into the kitchen, learning to cook, from scratch. By scratch I mean both literally knowing anything about cooking and using raw ingredients. Up to that point in my life I ate out, every meal, every day.

    Now, I cook every meal at home, myself! Never could I have imagined that I would be having fun and enjoying cooking so much. I have gone from “CAN he cook? to He CAN cook!”, according to friends.

    Funny how the path in life that we all walk can twist and turn…….

    • Craig, Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. I’m so glad that you’ve learned the skills and joy of cooking at home, from scratch, to create real food. And I agree that you never know what life will throw you, but taking life by the horns and making it a fun adventure is always a good approach — which it sounds like you did! I love Hawaii and the mix of food cultures there so enjoyed viewing your site.

  • Thank you for this very important post! I just saw Food Inc last night (finally) and it’s hard not to be moved by it but applying it to your everyday life can be difficult. Tips for eating at home is one big step in the right direction!

  • Thank you for this well-written post! I’m a huge Mark Bittman fan and I seem to remember a brilliant article in (maybe) the NY Times Magazine about our culture’s obsession with the Food Network. The author explored the way sitting and watching impossible food being made was replacing the act of actually making food. I will try to find that article to share with you – I think you’d appreciate it.

    I make food at home for many of the same reasons you do – I also eat out way too much, mostly because my job requires it. I would add to the reasons make food at home:

    1) Satisfaction of creating. I love seeing peoples’ faces when I serve them a meal that includes a mix of items from my yard, meat from my local farmer and local farm accents. It feels so nice!

    2) Customization – Once you really start cooking for yourself you can make that tikka masala the way YOU prefer it rather than the way the restaurant makes it to appeal to everyone. I invariably like things spicier and less salty/greasy than most restaurants prepare them. Cooking at home allows me to make it to my specifications.

    Thanks again!

    • Nicole, Thank you for stopping by! I’d love to see that NYT article about our obsession with the Food Network. I agree with your two other reasons for making food at home. In particular, growing your own food and then transforming it into something delectable IS such a creative act, and I am so inspired every time I do it! I think it’s fascinating what you’re doing at Farm Curious; would love to learn more.

  • [...] at home By admin, on November 4th, 2010 My favorite food blogger Stephanie Morimoto with a post on the importance of eating at home more. Have to say, it makes a huge difference in my [...]

  • mai truong says:

    Stephanie, what a great post. and definitely something that I think is happening. I am unfortunately victim of it myself, even though I love to cook. But when I leave work around 7pm, go for a jog in the dark with my honey, and then get home around 8:30pm. it is hard for me to motivate myself. Time just gets away from you. Something that we also find challenging is that we almost feel like we spend less time together when we cook at home. Is that strange? We talk some when we cook and clean up, but it’s more of a multi-task, rather than sitting across the table and talking the entire time as someone else is prepping and cleaning. And since we don’t feel like we spend much time during the week together, we have a tendency to go out. Would love your advice on this, b/c I would much rather cook. :)

    • Ahh, Mai, such good questions, and a conundrum that I think many people face. Here are my initial thoughts, but I’d love to hear what others think:

      (1) Shifting your mindset & priorities: Making the time to cook together — and viewing it as a way to spend quality time together, even if you’re not talking the whole time — is one key to cooking at home more. Sure, its hard to wield a sharp knife and talk about your day simultaneously (no one wants a fingertip in the salad). But I, at least, find that chopping and cooking is meditative, and spending that meditative time in the company of my hubby gives me some peace at the end of the day, even if we’re quietly moving in concert in the kitchen.

      (2) Practicing & defining your roles in the kitchen: That said, finding peace through cooking comes when the steps involved in cooking feel like second nature to you. And, the better you are at wielding a knife, the easier it is to talk while you’re doing it, if that’s your thing. The more my husband and I have cooked together, the less it’s felt like multi-tasking. We also have different jobs in the kitchen — e.g., I usually chop and cook the main and sides, he will make rice, set the table & plate, and often clean up — which I think helps with making the whole thing flow and feel nice.

      (3) Planning: If you’re coming home late, weeknight cooking at home requires more planning and work on weekends. That’s just the reality. You need to plan your week’s menu, shop, and where you can, prep ingredients on weekends so you can put a meal on the table in 30 minutes on Tuesdays. You can wash and chop lots of veggies on weekends and store them in air-tight containers or plastic bags so that you’re saving prep time on weeknights. I also find that cooking a few dishes on Sundays and then eating those leftovers a couple of nights a week helps.

      What do others think???

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