Cooking has become mostly a spectator sport in America. There are more than twenty-five well-known celebrity chefs cooking on television today, yet fewer people are actually cooking than ever before. According to a recent food marketing survey, only 27 percent of Americans cook on a daily basis.1 It’s not that they don’t want to, though. In a separate survey, a full 98 percent of Americans said they preferred meals prepared at home.2 If that is Americans’ preference, then why aren’t they doing it?
BARRIERS TO COOKING
The reasons not to cook are hard to ignore. Even though I am a daily cook, I certainly feel the pain. It takes time to shop, prep, cook and clean. Cooking also requires forethought, preparation, equipment, skill, experience and patience. Even given all that, the results are rarely the same as the food served in restaurants and bakeries. After attending a friend’s birthday party, my six-year-old son asked me whether I could make his next birthday cake with “more colors and sparkles.” Thankfully, he did concede that my birthday cakes taste better, probably because I top them with real cream versus frosting. My pho soup and Peruvian-style roast chicken also don’t win the flavor competition, but likely because I don’t add the monosodium glutamate (MSG)-like flavor enhancers used by restaurants that specialize in these dishes.
Another barrier to cooking is that it isn’t always the optimal economic decision. If my goal is calories per dollar, I could certainly do better buying a burger, pizza, submarine sandwich or a bucket of fried chicken from the large chains that get wholesale pricing on already cheap ingredients and benefit from automation and low-cost labor. In fact, most food establishments these days, including the specialized Peruvian chicken and pho soup restaurants I just mentioned, benefit from the same economies of scale. On top of that, if I calculated what my time is worth based on my effective hourly wage, I would see that giving up working hours to cook is likely not the best economic decision. Now don’t get me wrong—for many people who eat moderate- to higher-priced restaurant foods, cooking at home will save them money. Nonetheless, the efficiencies enjoyed by the large-scale food producers put them at a distinct economic advantage.
A third barrier to cooking that I don’t want to dismiss applies specifically to women. It is the modern public perception that an empowered woman is free from the ball and chain that is the kitchen. We might subconsciously feel as though coming home a little early to get dinner on the table for the family could make us look less committed to our jobs.
Despite these disincentives to cook, I still do it nearly every day for every meal. When a friend recently asked me why I cook so much, I was caught off guard. I realized that the answer, though totally obvious to me, is not easy to articulate. Here is my attempt to explain why it’s worth carving out time every day to cook.
COOKING IS HEALTHIER
The nutritional difference between supermarket-and restaurant-prepared foods versus home-cooked foods is far bigger than most people realize. Food labels are egregiously misleading and often downright fraudulent. Moreover, restaurants don’t have to list ingredients in their food, and they take advantage of this fact. People think sushi is healthy, for instance, but check out some of the “hidden scary ingredients” in sushi discussed by Dr. Joseph Mercola: MSG, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified ingredients, artificial colors, artificial flavors and more.3
One of my biggest restaurant complaints is added sugar in dishes that absolutely don’t need it. I am highly sensitive to sugar and can taste it immediately, which is how I know this. It’s there in most restaurant salad dressings, soups, sauces, pizza doughs, anything labeled “caramelized” and apparently in nearly all foods and breads labeled “gluten-free.” MSG (or its many clones under other names) lurks everywhere as well, and not just in Asian foods. So does gluten, according to my stomach, at least.
The quality of ingredients in restaurant and packaged foods is also far inferior to those I use when I cook at home. The milk, cheese, eggs and meats are from factory-farmed animals eating unnatural grain-based diets. The fats are highly processed, usually derived from heavily pesticide-doused crops like rapeseed (canola). The vegetables, such as the lettuces in restaurant salads, are likely grown without soil or else in soil that has been totally depleted of nutrients, and have to be pumped full of chemical fertilizers to sustain their growth. Only by cooking can I know and control what I’m eating and avoid the post-restaurant belly bloat and eventual weight gain that I usually experience after extended trips where I have to eat out often.
FREEDOM, CHOICE AND SOCIETY-SHIFTING ACTION
I want pho, but without the MSG and with broth from pastured beef. I want snacks that use the fats and sweeteners that I like. I want French fries made the old-fashioned way—in beef tallow or duck fat. And I want real German-style sourdough rye bread. Good luck buying any of this anywhere in the U.S.! Only cooking gives me the freedom and control to make and eat exactly what I want.
If enough people boycott the fake, cheap impersonations of these foods, I believe it will send a message to the food producers (as the Europeans have done) that food quality trumps price and convenience. Maybe new producers will enter the market and start offering these higher quality dishes made the traditional way.
EXERCISE FOR THE MIND AND BODY
Cooking takes my mind off the stresses in my life. I never knew why until I came upon this article from the Cleveland Clinic, entitled “Cooking for cognition: making a meal is good for your brain.”4 The article points out that “brain processes involved in getting dinner on the table…test our ability to organize, prioritize, sustain focus, solve problems, retrieve memories and multitask.”
I’m not sure if there are any studies on cooking and physical exercise, but if standing desks are so good for you, then standing at a kitchen counter while lifting full pots and pans and stirring, chopping, washing and grating must be at least as good for you.
A NATURAL ANTIDEPRESSANT
We are facing a depression epidemic in our country. I believe that a part of the reason is that we’re not making or fixing or tending to things anymore, and we’re missing out on the unexpected satisfaction that these jobs give.
Think about the people you know who cook a lot. Do they seem happier than those who rarely cook? And have you ever known an avid cook to reduce their cooking frequency over time? Ask, or better yet, observe any home cook. You’ll notice that a meal they’ve prepared themselves produces more smiles and enthusiasm than one they purchased or were given.
I’ll never forget the time when my husband treated me to dinner at Charlie Trotter’s legendary Chicago restaurant. I owned every one of Trotter’s cookbooks and idolized the man. Yet somehow the one hundred and sixty-five dollar per person meal I had in his restaurant felt like a letdown, and I couldn’t explain why. After all, isn’t that what we all aspire to in life? Don’t we want to earn enough money so that we can finally relax and enjoy amazing, magazine-worthy meals without all the work?
We humans are certainly wired to prefer the path of least resistance, yet as Michael Inzlicht and colleagues write, there is an “effort paradox” in which “effort is both costly and valued”5 (sometimes also referred to as the IKEA paradox). The “effort paradox” authors state, “Not only can the same outcomes be more rewarding if we apply more (not less) effort, sometimes we select options precisely because they require effort.” I think that pick-your-own farms are an example of this.
In addition, exertion and effort can be habit-forming, as shown in a 1992 paper on “learned industriousness.”6 That study’s findings suggest that after cooking a few times, you will acquire the itch to cook more.
I am always amazed when overwhipped cream in my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer suddenly separates into clumps of butter that stick to the rotating beater, which is sloshing around in buttermilk that wasn’t there a second before. Also thrilling is the formation of sauerkraut from the simple mixture of salt and shredded cabbage after just a few days.
Natural bread baking is also something everyone should experience. The simple mixture of flour and water plus time mysteriously produces a living, frothy and earthy-smelling sourdough starter. This natural “leaven” burps gas into your bread dough which, when baked, imparts a soft fluffiness to your loaf.
Eggs are pretty high on my magic list. Slimy, clear egg whites whip into a firm yet airy white cloud that also brings air into baked foods. Egg yolks whip up differently, going from dark yellow and runny to light yellow and thick as heavy cream. With a little heat, they thicken sauces like hollandaise or set custards. Even without heat, they emulsify oil into mayonnaise. Egg yolks also add a milk-free creaminess to brothy soups, like Mediterranean avgolemono, or the traditionally milk-free carbonara sauce for pasta.
Harold McGee attempts to explain all of this and much more food magic in his seminal book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.7 Read it if you want to understand the science, or (if you’re like me), just follow recipes and experience the thrill of magic.
FOSTERING HUMAN CONNECTION
One of the least understood yet most powerful benefits of cooking is the way that it bonds people together. One way that it does so is through the imperfection of home-cooked meals. Have you ever been served a lopsided homemade birthday cake or a shrunken burger on an over-grilled bun? My son still teases me every week about the time when a warm balsamic vinaigrette I was cooking on the stove caught on fire with foot-high flames. Think about how you feel about the people who took the time to prepare those foods for you versus just taking you out to a restaurant. And think about the laughs you enjoyed with those people and how much more memorable those meals were.
In Brené Brown’s TED talk on the “power of vulnerability,” Brown states, “Belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”8 Home-cooked meals are imperfect and make you vulnerable. Go with it! Unless you’re trying to acquire a Michelin star, your guests and family members will judge you more favorably as a result and might be more inclined to reciprocate by cooking for you, too.
Michael Pollan has a different take on how cooking fosters human connection. He states in his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:
“The rise of fast food and the decline in home cooking…undermined the institution of the shared meal, by encouraging us to eat different things and to eat them on the run and often alone…. The shared meal…is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.”9
If you want to cook more but suffer from the challenges listed above, then I suggest an experiment. Carve out just thirty minutes and use the time to make a meal plan for one week.10 Plan the entire week, including all needed groceries and scheduling of tasks, all at once. Then, just give it a go.
I have seen wondrous results by sitting down with friends and supporting them through making a single week’s meal plan. Every person who has tried it has raved about the results.
The great thing about cooking is that, unlike other crafts or trades, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment or advanced training to get started. You should, however, plan to ruin some ingredients. You’ll also get a few cuts and burns. You’ll cry from onion fumes or maybe worse—rub your eyes after slicing hot peppers! However, these are the experiences that make the best stories and memories, and they’re the best way to learn. So be brave, lower your expectations and embrace the mistakes and imperfections. Just do it!
1. Lempert Report. Who is cooking at home? May 10, 2018. https://www.supermarketguru.com/the-lempert-report/who-is-cooking-at-home/.
2. ReportLinker. Julia Child would be thrilled: most Americans prefer to cook at home. Nov. 23, 2016. https://www.reportlinker.com/insight/americans-cooking-habits.html.
3. Mercola J. Hidden scary sushi ingredients exposed. Mercola.com, Jan. 4, 2014. https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/01/04/sushiingredients.aspx.
4. Cleveland Clinic. Cooking for cognition: making a meal is good for your brain. Nov. 20, 2017. https://healthybrains.org/cooking-cognition-making-meal-good-brain/.
5. Inzlicht M, Shenhav A, Olivola CY. The effort paradox: effort is both costly and valued. Trends Cogn Sci 2018;22(4):337-349.
6. Eisenberger R. Learned industriousness. Psychol Rev 1992;99(2):248-267.
7. McGee H. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Scribner; 1984.
8. Brown B. The power of vulnerability. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
9. Pollan M. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. London, UK: The Penguin Press; 2013.
10. ChurnYourOwn. Weekly meal planning—how I do it and why. Oct. 25, 2017. http://churnyourown.com/2017/10/25/meal-planning/.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2018.