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Is it true that fewer and fewer of us are cooking at home?

Recently I read a poll by Harris Interactive finding that nearly 60% of Americans eat at least half of their meals out each week.

And last week, I attended a conversation between Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer, and Ruth Reichl, author of multiple food memoirs and former editor-in-chief of the sadly now-defunct Gourmet. The dialogue encompassed a number of topics about food today, but the thing that struck me most was a conversation about this strange dichotomy in our society, where on the one hand we’re more food-obsessed than ever -- watching shows like Top Chef, salivating over food porn and dishing about the hot restaurant in town -- yet on the other, fewer people are cooking at home, from scratch, on a regular basis. Bittman and Reichl noted that people seem to feel that if they can’t make the restaurant-quality dishes they see on the Food Network, what’s the point?

But the thing is, that’s not the point. Home cooks generally don’t, and maybe even can’t, cook like restaurant chefs (I certainly don’t!): they don’t have a line of cooks, each focused on some minute detail like shaving carrot ribbons, they don’t have all day to put dinner on the table and they don’t have a restaurant-grade kitchen and clean-up staff.

The point of cooking at home is not to feel like you’re in a restaurant (because if it is, why not just go to one?), but to create food, from scratch, that is so much better for us, in myriad ways:

  • It’s cheaper and healthier
  • It strengthens your connections, to what it takes to make good food, to recipes that are favorites of family and friends, to your partner or child that’s helping you prepare and serve the meal (or who’s at least enjoying eating it!)
  • If you buy local ingredients, it helps to sustain your economy and community
At the farmers’ market

To be fair, we’re all busy, and it does take time to shop, prep, cook and present a meal. You can’t cook food from scratch in 10 minutes or less, unless you’re eating a salad with few ingredients, and even then -- you’d have to be pretty speedy to wash, chop and assemble that fast.

But it is possible to cook healthy weeknight meals in 30-45 minutes or less from scratch, especially if you have access to fresh, local ingredients that don’t need much fussing to taste good. And, if you eat less meat, which many argue is better for you and the environment (click here for more info on that topic), that cuts down on cooking time too.

Romanesco broccoli, Dirty Girl Farm stand

Spurred on by the Bittman-Reichl discussion, I wanted to share:

  • How we menu plan and shop for the week
  • Our actual menu plan for this week -- plus a link to a lot of other menu plans
  • A recipe for one of the meatless menu plan dinners that can be made in 30 minutes from scratch -- and that even my husband, who generally insists on eating animal protein at every meal, enjoys (I’ll share this in a post later this week; this one is already quite long!)

I’m posting this now for three reasons:

1 -- I’d love to know if the Harris poll, Bittman and Reichl are right -- are we facing a home cooking crisis where fewer of us are cooking from scratch? Or do you cook at home regularly?

2 -- If you don’t cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post and the tools within it might inspire you to plan and cook some healthy, simple and tasty meals at home this week or next

3 -- If you do cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post might inspire you to go to the farmers’ market this week, try something new and bring it home for dinner. (If you live in S.F., you could head to one of the markets listed here.)

Winter squash at the Castro Farmers’ Market



Here are the three easy steps we take weekly to plan and shop for our meals:

1 -- Plan how many meals I need to make: Every Saturday morning, I use this template (Menu Plan & Farmers Market List) to map out how many meals we’ll eat at home. Some weeks, you might be traveling, or have work or social lunch or dinner plans, so this helps you see how much food you need to buy and cook so that it doesn't go to waste.

2 -- Go to the farmers’ market: I like to see what’s in season before I decide what to cook. While it may seem weird to go shopping without deciding your ingredients first, this method leads you to eat what’s freshest that week and to try new things (for example, we tried sunchokes this week -- amazing! More on that soon). And by using the meal plan template, you know the volume of food you need to buy (e.g., 10 servings of fruit; vegetables for two people for five dinners).

3 -- Decide on dishes and go to the grocery store: Armed with a bagful of produce, I write down in the meal planning template what dishes to make. So, if I nabbed a great end-of-the-season eggplant, I’ll make Indian baingan bharta if we’re going meatless, or moussaka if we want some meat. Then I’ll write a grocery list to buy the remaining ingredients (dairy, eggs, meat, cereals) -- and I’ll write them in the order I walk through the store so I can get in and out in 30 minutes. Here's the completed menu plan template and grocery list: Menu Plan Completed & Grocery List.



You saw above our menu plan with what we’re eating this week. You’ll see that I usually cook enough for dinners so that we have leftovers for lunch. Here’s a link to This Week For Dinner, a blog where the writer posts her weekly menu plans every Sunday and her readers post theirs (click here). Lots of ideas!


How many times per week do you cook at home?

How do you approach menu planning and food shopping?

This is a cross-post from my blog, Together In Food.

Views: 327

Comment by Lyndsay Officer on November 9, 2010 at 2:05pm
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 9, 2010 at 3:11pm
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I must admit, all that is coming to mind as I look at those links is: "Oh dear," with a worried frown furrowing my forehead.

I agree with you that it's crazy that people are trying to learn to cook by watching cooking shows. I think the days of Julia Child-style cooking shows are gone; it's not about education, it's about entertainment, and the timing of TV shows and commercials is not the timing of home cooking. I think Rachel got it right below when she said that few people learn to be home cooks in a "formal" way anymore (e.g. no more home ec class); and informally, with fewer and fewer people cooking, there's not the time or inclination, I suppose, to learn from family or friends.

You're right that that pumpkin thing is not a recipe. It's putting two processed foods together in a baking dish. Yikes! You may have found the pumpkin pie recipe but if not, here's a blog post (not mine) about making the pumpkin puree part, at least, from sugar pie pumpkins: http://browniesfordinner.com/2010/11/04/to-can-or-not-to-can-that-i.... You then use the puree as you would the canned stuff.

However, I was talking to a farmer/baker the other day who said she prefers using roasted butternut squash puree in her "pumpkin" pie -- less watery, better flavor.
Comment by Victoria Brigham on November 9, 2010 at 3:29pm
Re the pumpkin/butternut squash thing - I pretty much always use squash instead of pumpkin for pie. It used to be that they sold squash in cans like pumpkin too, but I don't think you can find it anymore. Anyway, you can't tell the difference in a pie. I don't roast mine, tho', I just microwave it, because I'm lazy. I think other kinds of winter squash would work fine too. Squash is usually cheaper and easier to find than pumpkin. I just bought a huge "mexican" winter squash at the store the other day, on sale for $.33/lb. I'm assuming it'll taste much like any other winter squash . . . eg, pumpkin.
Comment by Rachel Hoff on November 9, 2010 at 4:01pm
I'm not big on using pumpkin in pumpkin pie - too watery and tasteless. Even the canned stuff isn't real "pumpkin" but a processing winter squash.
Comment by Victoria Brigham on November 9, 2010 at 4:11pm
Re Jamie Oliver's "30 minute" meals, I looked up his recipes on the website (*that* took almost 30 minutes). I found them over-complicated. Salads with capers. I like capers, but I don't usually have them hanging around the kitchen. It's this kind of thing that discourages people, chefs who are used to making really elaborate meals coming up with "simple" recipes that aren't really simple at all. I found his recipes, at a quick glance, to be much too long. I wouldn't bother with them.

OTOH, stumbled across this website today: http://www.simplebites.net/. At another quick glance, the recipes look good, do-able, and adaptable. There's a link for "one-pot dinners." I can relate to one pot dinners. ;-)
Comment by Lyndsay Officer on November 9, 2010 at 6:30pm
Thank you for the pumpkin link. In the end I fried the shredded p. flesh!? I'm not sure what came over me really but as it was already in small slivers from scooping out of the shell I thought that roasting it would just burn all the edges. It worked ok. Although in the end I made a pumpkin cheesecake which I'm not actually the keen on (DH likes it so not a total fail).

I realised I sounded a little shouty, I'm just amazed at this situation. It seems bizarre to me that people don't want to eat better, more interesting food. Even in a large supermarket the combinations of meal elements is going to get pretty dull quite quickly. How often can you eat ready made tortellini and pesto?

I wonder if the "30 minute" recipies (I haven't looked) are loaded with statement ingredients because viewers/readers will not see the value in simpler, but well flavoured, foods? Our range of food in supermarkets is so limited but spiked with novelties, to appeal to short attention spans maybe?
Comment by Victoria Brigham on November 9, 2010 at 7:55pm
I think cooking has become too "professionalized." Jamie Oliver's site is prime example of this. His idea of simple and quick is that of a professional chef, not a civilian. Everyone seems to think that you need fancy expensive ingredients to make good food. I think we're just all so used to eating in restaurants, which are all always competing to out-do each other, that we've forgotten how to make good, simple food. My grandfather, who was the best cook I ever knew, gave me one piece of advice, "use one herb." We used to learn how to cook in our homes, and we didn't kill ourselves trying to make all these complicated recipes.
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 10, 2010 at 3:38am
I agree that sometimes the simplest recipes are the tastiest, especially if you can access seasonal and local ingredients. I posted a chard frittata recipe a couple of days ago that you can truly make in 30 minutes because it only has a few ingredients and is a simple method: http://www.homegrown.org/profiles/blogs/chard-or-any-other-greens
Comment by Lyndsay Officer on November 10, 2010 at 5:41pm
I'm not necessarily sure the issue is one of complexity v's simple food, I think it's maybe more to do with understanding. I normally quite like jamie oliver recipes and had a quick look at a couple from the 30 mins. show and they do look terrifyingly complictated from the ingrdients list but when you really think that yes, garlic/onion/chilli/olive oil are 4 separate ingredients, to someone who cooks regularly they would barely feature in the conciousness. They are just part of cooking certain types of food. So these plus a more unusual ingredient don't really add up to something overly complicated.
I do think that recipe books and shows reinforce the idea of following a set of rules rather than learning a general feel for what things go together.
Comment by pelenaka on November 13, 2010 at 6:50pm
Considering how enormous and complicated modern kitchens have become I find it ironic that such a large percentage of Americans aren't home cooking. Perhaps it is because after putting in a full day of work to pay for that extra prep sink and convection oven it is just easier to order take out.


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