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Oct 1, 2008 09:29 AM

A decline in home cooking?

Not among Chowhounds, obviously, but a TV programme I watched last night here in the UK got me thinking.

I'm not sure whether you'll get it in the States but Jamie Oliver has a new show called "Jamie's Ministry of Food". In it he goes to a northern town (Rotherham) on a mission to teach ordinary folks to cook. The lack of basic knowledge among the people that he meets is gobsmacking. One woman isn't sure how to turn her cooker on, another doesn't really know what boiling water looks like. All of them feed their kids on junk food and takeaways. The idea is that he teaches a core group of eight some simple dishes, which they teach to their friends, and so on.

Now these may be extreme examples, but it does seem that we have created large swathes of people who simply don't know how to cook. I'm not talking about gourmet food here, but the kind of stuff that I would consider to be a basic life skill. After all, it's not rocket science.

Back in the seventies, when I was growing up, people had no option but to cook. Takeway/restaurant food was simply too expensive. My mother loathes cooking but still put a home-cooked meal on the table every night. Sure we ate a lot of mince (ground beef) and stuff with pastry but at least it was honest, if not gourmet, fare. We were a fairly typical working-class family.

But somewhere along the line that seems to have changed for a lot of people. What went wrong?

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  1. Great topic! This very subject has been on my mind a lot. Well here in the US I blame fast food restaurants and also the need for both parents to have a full-time job. In the introcution to Super Size me the director says that back in the day his family of origin had a home-cooked meal every night and eating out was for very rare occaisions. I could write a ton on this but I want to see what others thing. I have to ask what the eight basic dishes? I'm dying to know. And thanks again for posting this.

    6 Replies
    1. re: givemecarbs

      "I have to ask what the eight basic dishes?" If you parse the OP again I believe you'll find she is referring to eight people being taught, not eight dishes.

      I agree, we eat out a bit more than when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, but it seems to me that's a question of having more disposable income now than anything else. We have more variety in our takeout meals (back then the only options were pizza or Chinese), but still don't make a dinner of that more than once a week or so.

      We have no kids still at home but when we did, everyone was here for (usually home-cooked) dinner every night - or better have a good excuse why not! I look at my younger sisters' families today and see pretty much the same thing.

      I'm not saying this phenomenon doesn't exist, I'm sure you can find plenty of people here who can't boil water either, but I wonder how widespread it really is.

      1. re: givemecarbs

        It's ten dishes, and last night they learned to cook spaghetti with meatballs and fish pie. More information here:

        1. re: greedygirl

          What a great idea. Hasn't he also been involved with changing school meals in parts of the U.K.?

          Most of my friends with children do eat with their children and make home cooked meals, even if they both work - though many of them do have help. However, I have two step-siblings, neither of whom can really afford it, who, more often than not, go out to eat for junky food, or order in almost every night.

          1. re: MMRuth

            Yes some people "cook supper" every night and eat at home mostly but if you actually see the type of food prepared in most kitchens, it is hardly healthy home cookin'.

            1. re: meditrinarose

              I cook every day for my self alone, but I share w/ my Dad & friends... Dad's on a diet now, so he doesn't get much!
              I cook with butter, cream, cheeses, regular old bad for you flour, meats -the fatter the better as far as I'm concerned. (I was stunned at the meat counter last spring when the man who helped me sliced off the beautiful ring of fat from the pork I'd chosen without me asking him to, and so quickly it was done before I could stop him. I had to settle for the second best piece. : p)

              Cooking is an art. There are different viewpoints, different art supplies. I get on a tangent and do something to death for awhile, then move on to something else... I enjoy the art of others. I wouldn't enjoy cooking vegan, but would love to try what others create! But not convert, for SURE.

              1. re: weewah

                I know what you mean weewah. Sometimes going grocery shopping feels like going to a toy store. My friend is testing for a gluten intolerance and assisting him in his endeavor has taken me on many adventures!

      2. This is so relevant for me b/c my best friend does take out for her family every evening. She literally struggles to do something as simple as boil water. She was stunned recently to learn that mashed potatos could be made with potatos rather than with flakes from a box.

        She also regularly complains that her kids "won't eat anything" or "try anything new" and that she needs to lose weight. But for some reason she never makes the connection b/w her eating habits and these problems.

        Growing up, we probably had enough money to do take-out every night, though my parents didn't see that b/c they were Depression-era babies. Even if they had, my mother would have cooked every night (except for special occasions) b/c in her mind, that's what mothers who loved their children, valued their family-life, and believed in good, healthy, well-rounded meals did.

        I do think the issue of both parents working (and more single parenthood? though I'm not certain that is the case) contributes to higher rates of eating/taking out. Even when parents do cook, there is less time spent on teh actual act of cooking/dining, and kids seem busier now as well. So those long Sundays (or Saturdays) that many of us spent in the kitchen cooking for the big family meal no longer occur.

        1. I disagree that it's both parents working that caused it. I think it's credit cards.

          When many of us grew up in the 60s and 70s, there WERE no credit cards to live off of so going out to eat, which is more expensive than cooking something at home from scratch, was a special and rare treat. Now people live off credit. most restaurants take credit, even fast food places (at least they do where I live), and that's part of the problem.

          I would also say the "I have no time to cook" argument is perpetuated by the soccer moms who are the ones who put their child in 15 differents sports and 12 different other activities each year, so all their free time outside of work is spent shuttling the children to rehearsals, games, performances, banquets, etc. When I was a kid, I had to pick ONE thing I could do when I was in elementary school (I picked music). When I got older, you could pick ONE sport in addition to the music. If you didn't like it, you waited another year and picked another sport. It was just too expensive and time consuming to do more than that.

          I think the "I'm too busy" is created by the parents themselves, and they justify takeout and fast food meals and charging their lives on credit cards because they're "too busy" to do anything else.

          2 Replies
          1. re: rockandroller1

            In general I agree. You're a bit sexist, though, I know plenty of dads who insist that their sons try out for the baseball team and take karate. Also know plenty of dads who cook.

            1. re: rockandroller1

              There are two other factors.

              First, families were a lot larger so that taking the family out was a LOT more expensive than eating at home. Also, since families were larger, there had to be limits to the number of activities that each kid could get into.

              Second, a LOT of families had ONE car so eating out was more of a logistical nightmare.

              When you see how willing parents are to outsource tasks they find unpleasant, including child care, why should cooking be different.

            2. I definitely think the two-income family has played a role. For the first 11 years of my life, my mom stayed at home and cooked all the time. But she did reenter the workforce (a college professor's salary only goes so far), and I noticed our meals not being as lavish. She still cooked, but cooked simpler food and there was a lot of meals made in bulk and stashed in the freezer.

              But it seems that trend is changing again. According to the Wall Street Journal, they say that there's been an increase in home chefs in recent years with more people cooking at home due to budget issues.


              1. I think there are several factors. First, I don't think wages have kept up with inflation, so many people are forced to work longer hours just to make ends meet. You have families with single parents working multiple jobs or with both parents working long hours.

                Fast food and some takeout places are relatively cheap compared to the prices 50 years ago, parents may only have time to grab that on their way home or between jobs. There are also many more cheap pre-made food options in grocery stores as well that only require microwave knowledge to cook. At the end of the day, a lot of parents are looking at what they can do to feed their children period, and in many cases that's processed food instead of ingredients that need to be cooked to make a meal.

                16 Replies
                1. re: queencru

                  I was going to say the opposite. It's AFFULENCE that has caused people to stop cooking. They can afford convenience products, they can afford take out and restaurants. Every body lives so much higher than they did a couple of decades ago.

                  In fact, i would say your second paragraph refutes (correctly) your assertion that wages haven't kept up w/ inflation. To say that food is relatively cheaper than 50 years ago indicates the opposite.

                  I can remember in the 70's I liked Arby's, but my Mom limited the times we could go there because it was "expensive". I'd say we were solidly middle class (a teacher and a banker) and can't imagine any middle class family considering any run of the mill fast food expensive today.

                  1. re: danna

                    No, I don't think so. Look at all the fast-food joints in poor neighborhoods. It's partly cultural. Just as formula companies convinced people it was better to use formula than to breastfeed, fast food/convenience food advertising has convinced people that it's more desirable to eat those foods. Since they're cheap and easy, that's what people eat.

                    People who are poor are especially vulnerable to the aspirational aspects of food advertised on television. They aspire to being middle class. They rarely see people portrayed as cooking on television, but they do see lots of happy, prosperous-looking people eating fast food/convenience food, so that's what they aspire to eat. This is gone on for a couple of generations in the US so there are now large groups of people who not only can't cook themselves, but whose mothers couldn't cook. What cooking is done is for special occasions and thus has become seen as something that is time consuming, elaborate and expensive, not something you would do on an everyday basis. Fast food has become the norm for them.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Ah, but middle class suburban malls are jammed with Cheesecake Factories, Outbacks, P.F.Chang's, Red Lobsters, Applebees, Chili's, Chevy's, Olive Gardens, Buca Di Beppos, etc., etc. which always seem to be crowded with families dining out - and the advertising is just as proflific. This "dine out - don't cook" phenomenon goes way beyond the MacDonaldizing of poorer neighborhoods; it's not just "them".

                      1. re: Striver

                        Agreed, I know plenty of people w/ granite counters who haven't spilled anything on them yet. I don't think it's a rich/poor issue.

                        I personally don't believe (as I'm aware many do) that suppliers/advertisers cause people to do anything. Companies fullfill the desires of the buying public. They don't create demand.

                        1. re: danna

                          "Companies fullfill the desires of the buying public. They don't create demand."

                          I really must disagree on this point. Companies with new products whether it be pre-shredded cabbage, blue ketchup or ipods put plenty of money toward creating demand. Their marketing departments are dedicated to creating the feeling that one can't live without a product that two months ago the public didn't know existed.

                          I agree that marketing doesn't "make" a person do anything. They simply make choices that benefit their company easier for the public to make than other possibly more healthy options. That's business.

                        2. re: Striver

                          I didn't mean to suggest that *only* poor people didn't cook, just that the trend of not cooking is not purely a byproduct of affluence, as the post I was responding to posited.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            not to belabor the point, Ruth, I suppose I mean "relative affluence". I propose that today's poor are quite affluent compared to the poor...or maybe even the middle class... of 1950. And thus able to buy the convenience products they couldn't in years past.

                            thinks too much: I see what you're saying, but I think the demand has to be there...even if it is previously order for the marketing to have effect. Let's say a company develops chocolate flavored water. This is not a product I've ever felt a desire for. But...i have a demand for chocolate and a demand for lo-cal might be all over that product. However, they could pump me full of advertising day and night for blue cheese flavored water....and it's never, EVER going to happen.

                            So what I'm trying to say by this lame analogy, is that people WANT to be time efficient (or lazy depending on your value judgement) at the cost of eating crap food...McD's, Snackables, and all the rest, no matter how icky, can't be blamed for giving people what they want.

                            1. re: danna

                              I don't think you can argue that today's poor are affluent relative to the 1950's poor or middle class. Yes they can afford to buy products that weren't available in the 1950's, but being able to buy tinned spaghetti (which in the 50's was a treat relative to dried spaghetti) doesn't denote relative wealth.
                              Consider that recently the media has reported that the average cost of purchasing a house in the UK or Australia is ten times the average wage, previously (as in the 1950's) it had been closer to 3 to 4 times the average wage. Consider also that the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables has been rising (in Australia at least) at a rate greater than underlying inflation, making convenience foods the cheaper option. That poorer socio-economic groups can afford the 'convenience' foods is not a sign of comparative wealth but the manner in which the tables have turned.

                              Also the purpose of advertising is to create demand for a particular product by tapping into broader aspirations and desires that are not actuallyl affected or related to the product. For instance, a fast food chicken joint in Australia advertises its family meal by associating said meal with a convenient dinner that will make everyone happy (due to 'variety' of meal) allow harassed working mum to arrange dinner with ease (thereby fulfilling domestic goddess role) , and then the family will all sit around the table during dinner playing charades (thereby family gets to be a happy family).

                              The product in question is in fact that antithesis of all these ideals but by virtue of creating a work of fiction that speaks to the aspirations of a subset of society (harassed working mums feeling guilty at not being the happy homemaker, thereby creating a fractured and unhappy family that cannot bond adequately so ultimately at least one of your children will hate you/your whole family and may at a later date commit a horrendous crime but get off on the grounds of you being a preoccupied -with poorly completed domestic duties - mother who was incapable of spending sufficient time with them between getting home and dinner being on the table.) Hence deep fried chicken, with processed mashed 'potato', coleslaw and fries comes to represent the fulfillment of the aspirations to be a good mother, demand for product is thus generated.

                              1. re: irisav

                                You nailed it.

                                It's indisputable that the inflation-adjusted cost of whole foods has increased over the last several decades relative to the cost of processed foods.

                                It's also indisputable that marketing can create - or at least increase - demand for the advertised product. (Otherwise, why would companies pay for it?)

                                But what blows me away is that the government here in the US (can't speak to the situation in Oz) actually spends billions of taxpayer dollars every year funding the transition from real food to highly-processed crap by providing subsidies that make food-like products cheaper, thus creating additional room in their manufacturers' budgets for even more advertising. [Insert remainder of rant here.]

                                1. re: irisav

                                  Awesome post irisav! I hate the way advertisers use their empathy for evil purposes. Making career moms with young children feel guilty is like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm pretty sure Boston Market here in the US has done similar commercials.

                                  1. re: irisav

                                    In economic terms, the demand is not created. In your example, there is a value placed on (a demand for): a) a happy family, b) meeting the diferent needs or desires of each member, c) fullfillment of the motherhood role, and d) quality family time. These are goods desired by many if not most families. The fast food chicken joint recognized the demand and suggested that they have a way of providing such goods. The publics' response in terms of purchases reflects, to some degree, that it is getting what it wants.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      Yes. Cleverly designed and placed advertising can get you to try something once.

                                      After that, it's entirely your decision - or, as Voltaire put it, "Once - a philosopher; twice - a pervert". He wasn't exactly talking about food, but the same general principle applies.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        I think the problem is the use of the word 'demand' and I very nearly didn't use it.

                                        I think demand implies that well a the specific 'need/want' already existed and that the companies are just meeting these needs. But I'm not convinced that this is true.

                                        Companies identify their market and then pitch accordingly. Yes it is the choice of the consumer, but how much of a choice is it? Marketing works by dog-whistling, it can be quite insidious in its approach.

                                        For instance a full time working mother is watching tv having had a long day, produced a dinner which was whinged about by the kids and then had to fight with them to get them do their homework/go to bed/have a bath etc. It hasn't been a positive day, the family wasn't a hallmark commercial of family bonding and then this ad comes on showing a mother who presumably works full time, and has two kids the same age as yours calling home to tell them she made the choice of fried chicken for dinner, and cut to family eating dinner bonding over charades.

                                        Clearly the message is that the commercial mum knows which decision to make, and if you make this decision maybe your hair will be this perfect too etc. Now imagine that that ad is repeated three or four times over the next hour or so, and this goes on for several weeks, I can bet you somewhere out there a mother gets turned.

                                        The purchasing public doesn't get what it wants which is a better work/family life balance (or a husband who pitches in - in the case of the ad DH already home but clearly not doing anything about the dinner situation).

                                        It gets a product that cannot meet these needs (fried chicken won't make your manager more flexible about working hours) but has nevertheless been made to appear as the answer to your woes through a piece of marketing.

                                      2. re: irisav

                                        I most certainly can argue that because it's a fact. I'm no expert on the Austrialian economy, but in the US, the price of food relative to income has declined. See this book if you like:

                                        I have more respect for the working mother's (or anyone's) intelligence than to believe they can be influenced in the way you suggest in this post, and the follow up one below. People aren't victims - if they see crap food on TV and think the trade-off between cooking something decent and having extra time is a good deal - it's their decision.

                                        1. re: danna

                                          It's not really about intelligence, objectively and consciously they would know that it is an ad and that they are being marketed to and even made to feel bad. The problem is that subconsciously they may still be influenced - that is the next time they've had a long day and can't face cooking they opt for the fast food short cut and perhaps that becomes a habit whenever they feel this way.

                                          I recall an article several years ago reporting on a study that suggested that people with limited social life's were as satisfied with their social existence as people with extensive social life's if they watched a lot of TV as ultimately the human brain cannot easily distinguish between a perceived friendship with a character in a TV show and a friendship with a real person. While this may not seem immediately congruent with advertising, my point is that an individual in a vulnerable state of mind may be open to the suggestion of advertised product be it fried chicken, firming lotion or packages of processed 'side dishes'. I do not suggest that everyone will be turned, but some will (why on earth would companies sink so much money into advertising if it was not successful?).

                                          If you're interested in the messages that form the subtext of advertising I suggest you google (or youtube) the gruen transfer which was a program aired in Australia where a panel of ad industry experts dissected ad's.

                                          The example of the ad I provided was just one illustration of how food media pitches to one its prospective markets. That same company runs modified versions of this ad between 3 and 5pm pitching to children who are more likely to be viewing TV at this time, so pester power can also be added to the pressures of the working mother.

                                          Finally the reference you provided whilst interesting was published in 1997. Many of my lecturers and tutors have impressed upon me that for reference material of this kind it is best to source journal articles as the nature of publishing means that by the time a book has made it through the rewrites/editing/publication/distribution etc it is already several years out of date. With journal articles it is easier to find more recent material.

                                          In support of my position I offer:

                                          'Price changes in thrifty food plan versus the consumer price index for food: why the difference?', Family economics & Nutrition review, 16.2 (Spring 2004) p. 82 (2)

                                          "What price more food? It's the crisis the world should have seen coming", New Scientist, 198.2660, (June 14, 2008) p. 28 (6)

                                          "Markets and Childhood Obesity", J. Cawley, The Future of Children, Vol. 16 No. 1, childhood Obesity, Spring 2006

                                          I'm not sure whether or not these articles can be sourced free on the internet.

                                          From the Cawley piece I'l quote from the opening para:

                                          "...the real price of food fell, In particular energy-dense foods, such as those containing fats and sugars became relatively cheaper than less energy-dense foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables." (p69)

                                          My argument, re: decline in home cooking, is that it is a significant indicator of lower socio-economic status - so I'm largely identifying a group of people in low paying jobs with frequently significant hours, or people on either government income support or a full government benefit. The relative cost of processed foods to fresh fruit and vegetables is cheaper both in terms of monetary and time costs. Not only that but this expenditure is part of a constellation of other costs such as fuel and utility costs which have all significantly risen in the past few years. Hence, fast food and highly processed food become more appealing and much more the 'norm' the further down the socio-economic scale you go.

                                          The New Scientist piece argues that the cost of unprocessed produce fruit, vegetables, meat, cereals dairy etc are only set to rise in future years as world-wide demand continues to 'exceed' supply (this would probably be less problematic if distribution between developed and developing nations were more equitable rather than market driven). The supply is also subject to the pressure of prolonged drought in places like Australia and other climate and calamitous occurrences around the world.

                                          My point is that if an individual is already economically disadvantaged then that disadvantage is only set to grow in the coming years.