The fall of home cooking and the rise of heart disease

by Carolyn Thomas 

Chef and food activist Dan Barber, writing in The Nation recently, had a goofy, radical, off-the-wall idea:  we need to learn how to cook.  “A lack of technique behind the stove is as complicit in harming human health and the environment as the confinement pig or the corn-fed steer,” he boldly claimed. And author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food), writing in the New York Times, notes the irony of our fascination with wildly popular celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows (even an entire food cable network!):

“How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking. 

“That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading us to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so.

“Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.”

A Chicago study in 2003 found that people who ate out consumed an average of 200 extra calories per day, as well as 3 grams more saturated fat and 450 mg more salt compared to those eating home-prepared meals. Study co-author Dr. Lisa Powell blamed this increase on more energy-dense foods, larger portions, and sugar-sweetened beverages common when dining out.

By comparison, when I was barely a teenager growing up on a 40-acre fruit farm in the Niagara Peninsula, one of my solo summertime tasks every day was cooking dinner for the seven people in our family – and often many more with the addition of our drop-in friends, neighbours or farm hands.

From the time I woke up every morning (when I would have to think ahead to that night’s dinner menu so I could take the chicken or the ground beef out of the freezer to thaw) to the last-minute task of setting the table, my daily focus was on pulling off a nice big home-cooked dinner.

In between breakfast and dinner, I worked in the fields all summer with my parents and sibs picking strawberries or cherries or plums or apples, in that order of seasonal readiness. I’d be excused from the last hour of picking each afternoon to go peel the potatoes or brown the pork chops or grate the cabbage for cole slaw – and maybe throw together a fruit crumble for dessert. We had no instant this, or frozen that.  Everything I cooked was made from scratch.

Did I mention that I was only 13 years old when I started doing this?

But the very definition of that term “from scratch” has changed. Once again, Michael Pollan :

“Take the concept of cooking from scratch. Many of today’s cooking programs rely unapologetically on ingredients that themselves contain lots of ingredients: canned soups, jarred mayonnaise, frozen vegetables, powdered sauces, vanilla wafers, limeade concentrate, Marshmallow Fluff.

“This probably shouldn’t surprise us: processed foods have so thoroughly colonized the modern kitchen and diet that they have redefined what passes today for cooking, not to mention food. Many of these convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff.

“So the shows encourage home cooks to take all manner of shortcuts, each of which involves buying another product, and all of which taken together have succeeded in redefining what is commonly meant by the verb “to cook.”

How has the definition of the verb “to cook” evolved? Marion Chan, director of food and beverage consulting at the market research firm, The NPD Group explains:

“Baby boomers have developed a habit of not cooking. Cooking from scratch as we knew it 20 years ago is something that’s increasingly rare in the average household now. People call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.

“Boomers aged 55+ are even eating fewer breakfasts at home, and heading out to restaurants in the morning more frequently than in any other year.  Take-out meals from casual dining restaurants over the past six years have seen double-digit growth, with NPD analysts reporting: “as the population ages, there is a greater demand for convenient food for childless households that no longer feel the need to participate in the cooking process.”

Paul Murphy of Calgary sees this demand for convenience firsthand as the owner of the scratch meal service, Plate It Up, which caters to Calgarians too busy to cook for themselves. And his take-out dinner business is brisk.  He is surprised so many of his customers are Boomers simply tired of cooking.

“I have customers who stop by on their way home from work three or four days a week. Time is at a premium. Empty nesters are tired of cooking all the time.”

He’s also amazed by how many people just do not know how to make their own meals.

Toronto Life magazine ran a piece recently that featured a conversation among seven young professionals. All agreed that they spend “too much” on eating out.  Several said their restaurant habit has become a “serious” financial issue. But one developer bragged:

“I don’t think I’ve been to a supermarket in five years!”

Many people of more modest means than these young professionals have also become hooked on the restaurant habit. Busy young families on the go are cooking at home less frequently than a generation ago.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade, host of the television series Til Debt Do Us Part, explains:  

“It starts slowly – KFC on the way back from karate, McDonald’s on the way to soccer, pizza when we get home too late to figure out what else to do. In no time flat, we’re eating take-out or delivery four nights a week.”

This remarkable decrease in home cooking is not only costing us more money, it can also mean something far more sinister to our heart health, because a steady diet of excess fat, calories and salt may increase risk of heart attack and stroke.

Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation reminds us that when we see the words Alfredo sauce, au gratin, cheese sauce, battered, breaded, buttered, creamed, crispy, deep-fried, en croute, fried, hollandaise, pan-fried, pastry, prime, rich, sauteed, scalloped, gravy, mayonnaise or thick sauce, it usually means that the food is higher in fat and calories. 

This made me ponder if all this eating out/meal delivery/take-out means an inevitable decline in overall health. But as the H&SF advises:

“Even when eating out, you’re still in charge of what you eat even though you’re not doing the cooking. More and more restaurants today are happy to accommodate individual preferences, so feel free to ask questions about how a dish is cooked or to make requests, such as asking for salad dressing on the side or having a baked potato instead of french fries.”

Do you wonder if a faltering economy and an increased awareness of nutrition will combine to convince us to return to the kitchen and home cooking? According to the latest Eating Patterns In Canada report from NPD:

  • 88% of respondents revealed their intentions to decrease the amount of time spent eating restaurant meals, choosing the comforts of home instead
  • 60% say they are also more conscious about the nutritional value of what is eaten than they were three years ago
  • 67% noting that nutrition is an important attribute in the preparation of their evening meal.

For now, however, Statistics Canada says that with the current popularity of drive-through, take-out and food delivery, the percentage of meals prepared in restaurants but eaten elsewhere (brought home or, yes, in the car!) increased to 61% of all food services meals last year.

StatsCan also tells us that the average household visits a restaurant for a meal or snack 520 times a year. We spend 30% of our food budget on eating out, compared to 42% for American households. The most popular food and beverage purchased at Canadian restaurants are french fries and coffee.

When I was a teenager in our farm kitchen, I felt terribly hard done by, envying my urban girlfriends who spent their summers at the lake and never had to cook an entire dinner for seven every night.

But that early culinary training is why I can still to this day whip up a fruit crumble to make you weep for joy.

Read Michael Pollan’s fascinating New York Times article.

See also:

5 thoughts on “The fall of home cooking and the rise of heart disease

  1. This article is enough to drive me back to my kitchen and my dust-gathering cookbooks. So true and so sad … we are lamentably distanced from the practice of preparing good healthy food to enjoy with our families.


  2. .
    “…People call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza…”

    This is SO TRUE. I wonder about these GOURMET KITCHENS that people spend a fortune designing when the true purpose of the kitchen – to COOK for one’s family – seems so old-fashioned these days. I’m hoping that the SLOW FOOD MOVEMENT may help to address this in coming generations, the return to the genuine love and pleasure of home cooking. Not the love of watching cooking shows on TV, but the actual love of COOKING.

    I feel inspired to go bake something now. 🙂

    Thank you – I love this website because it’s always FOOD for THOUGHT.


  3. Thanks so much for this. It is so true. We use “no time” or “too tired” as an excuse not to do all kinds of healthy things that would be so beneficial, yet somehow we find the time and energy later to have to cope with illness and health problems as a direct result of such avoidance!


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