It might seem strange for a European citizen, but a lively debate around home cooking is currently going on in the United States. While a growing number of properties go for rent without an actual built-in kitchen – in most cases there will be a hotplate in the corner of the living room –, the prevalence of obesity and overweight is starting to spark debate about the country’s relationship to food, cooking and sharing meals. There is a consensus that home cooking is far better for the health. But there still seem to be too many obstacles to make it central to the American way of life again.
There are obstacles to home cooking
Hyperprocessed foods, including the ones sold in fast-food restaurants, are packed with additives, hidden sugar, salt, fat and taste enhancers. Overall, they contribute to the rise of non-communicable diseases like obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. A return to the kitchen, i.e. to knowing exactly what you are eating because you have cooked it, is therefore recommended by health institutions and foodies. But is it really that simple?
In a recent study, The Joy of Cooking?, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot and Joslyn Brenton from North Carolina State University ‘argue that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealised vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.’ In other words, they highlight the fact that the whole home cooking trend might be a thing for the elite, while less well-off households do the best they can, which often means serving their family highly processed, ready-made food. The authors observed the habits of nearly 200 mothers from low- and middle-income families for 18 months. And while these women were all well aware of the virtues of home cooking, they found themselves up against a number of constraints:
– Time: many of them are single mums, with rather unstable schedules, who do not have time to prepare a proper meal when they get off work.
– Money: raw, healthy ingredients are more expensive than processed food. And if families do not have a car and can only go to the supermarket every now and then, they do not buy perishable goods.
– Lack of equipment: Sarah Bowen told Vox, ‘Some of the families didn’t have a kitchen table, or enough chairs for everyone, or lacked basic kitchen utensils.’
– Pickiness: if you cannot afford to waste food, you are going to serve children what you are sure they will eat. Calories and a full belly matter more than how healthy food is.
But the main problem is cultural
In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Mark Bittman challenges the idea that junk food is cheaper than cooking your own meals. He has worked out that a typical McDonald’s order for a family of four costs around $25, when a roast chicken with vegetables and a salad costs around $14. He also suggests that consumers might be discouraged by the organic trend: out of fear of not doing things the right way, maybe they don’t do them at all.
Food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux. The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food.
In fact, the real problem with home cooking is not really the price. There’s accessibility, of course, but over 90% of the American families do not have that problem. The core issue is that home cooking is seen as a chore, a stressful moment and an obligation. People who already have their plates pretty full don’t want to add cooking on top. And the fast-food and hyperprocessed food industry have done a lot to make sure fast food was a simpler option than cooking: it has been proven that hyperprocessed food is addictive; there are 5 fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; and fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.
Public authorities, but also actors of the food industry, there have a responsibility to share information and education on cooking. Many people do not cook because they feel like they do not know how to do it, have little knowledge of the raw ingredients, are unaware of what makes a good and healthy diet. There is a know-how gap to bridge.
What is really needed is a change of culture.
If children are educated at an early age to know and learn different tastes and textures, if they are exposed to better quality raw ingredients and less hyperprocessed products, they will be far more likely to love other things than fast-food, as children and as grown-ups. Healthy eating habits go a long way.
The food industry can also play its part by offering more simple yet healthy options for busy parents, with good nutritional and gustative qualities, and adapted to local tastes and needs.
As far as promoting home cooking is concerned, Bittman mentions that efforts are being made everywhere: ‘the People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighbourhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania programme to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot and Joslyn Brenton throw in a few ideas, ‘like healthy food trucks or community kitchens or to-go meals at schools that kids can take home.’ And Katherine Martinko, from TreeHugger (who has written two articles on the subject), suggests helping people ‘realise how little work home cooking actually requires. That education could begin in schools, where kids could be taught to make basic, cheap, healthy food such as omelettes, soups, and pastas, and then pass that knowledge on to their parents. If it doesn’t take, then at least they’re equipped for their own futures.’ She concludes that ‘home cooking is the closest thing we’ve got to a silver bullet solution to countless health problems – even social ones, too.’ So let the educational work begin!
Photo © Ermolaev Alexander via shutterstock