Are home cooked meals a thing of the past?

A recent article by three sociologists from North Carolina State University, called “The Joy of Cooking?” drew media attention this fall for its “tell it like it is” critique of the increasingly prevalent food and nutrition message that healthy meals need to be home-cooked meals. It’s a message we are seeing more of as people seek out more information about food quality, food sourcing and nutrition. And yet, it’s a message that may not resonate with some people, say the article’s authors—and for good reason. It isn’t very practical. Here are some of my thoughts on this topic—let me know what you think!

Cooking doesn’t seem to be a priority

Enter Guiding Stars' 2014 Mother's Day Sweepstakes!As a dietitian, I can easily stand behind the suggestion that everyone should be cooking at home in order to get the most healthful meals on the table. After all, cooking at home allows for the most control over what is put into the food (so meals can be tailored to individual or family health concerns), and also provides the means for presenting the family with more well-rounded meals than might be obtained elsewhere. And while that’s not hard to understand, a good portion of the adult population lacks cooking skills.

An international survey published in 2011 indicated that not only were fewer Americans cooking (compared to those of the 27 other countries surveyed), but folks in the U.S. also spend less time cooking when we do decide to go the homemade route. Really, who has the time to actually cook something from scratch? There are lots of demands on our time, so unless one is skilled in the kitchen, it’s quite likely that a quick meal out or take-out/delivery food or something frozen and microwaved would be a better fit for today’s busy family.

Lack of skills

I find time to cook (I’m self-employed and have a flexible schedule), but I also know how—and I like to do it. One reason for the no-cook trend might be the demise of home economics class. The typical “home ec class” that was taught for decades in American schools included the teaching of basic cooking and nutrition, along with sewing (another lost skill) and perhaps budgeting. Unfortunately, many schools no longer offer home economics classes.  In addition, it’s quite likely that a good portion of folks who are heading up families these days never learned how to cook Grandma’s Sunday pot roast from Grandma herself (a la The Walton’s), and so culinary know-how hasn’t trickled down through the generations as it did in the past.

Research shows that only about half of US adults cook on any given day. I’m not so naïve to think that consumers will get back to the kitchen just because public health education programs, popular “foodie” books and yes, even nutrition professionals like myself, extol the health virtues of the home-cooked meal. There is a bit of a movement to bring back Home Ec class, but it will surely be a struggle when schools need to demonstrate improved test scores in reading and math. (Alas, I don’t recall my own children discussing how their standardized tests asked them about the basics of creating a balanced meal, sewing on a button or boiling an egg.)

Relax and eat

Guilt and stress over whether one has prepared “the best” meal for the family is so not helpful to anyone. Yes, I’d advocate for putting some thought into presenting food from a few food groups at each meal, but does the fruit need to be organic? Does the chicken need to be roasted in your home oven? Do the veggies need to be fresh instead of frozen? In my world the answer is a big “nope.” Getting the fam around the table can be hard enough, and if you’re managing to do that more nights than not, you’re doing something right. There are ways to go half-homemade or perfect “speed scratch” cooking that might be the best answer for your family’s situation. I’ll explore that in a later post…