Celebrate the culture of agriculture & share skills (Growing! Cooking! Eating!)

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: 338

Comment by Rachel Hoff on November 4, 2010 at 9:58am
Great post! I think another challenge we are facing is most schools no longer teach cooking and home ec. Just because we don't live in the '50s doesn't mean those aren't important subjects to learn.
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 4, 2010 at 11:18am
Rachel, Thanks for reading! Good point that nobody learns to cook anymore in a formal way. I loved seeing the pictures of your veggie garden/urban farm on your profile. We are in the process of redoing our backyard so that we have two big veggie beds (we live in the middle of San Francisco).
Comment by Rachel Hoff on November 4, 2010 at 11:39am
Thanks! I find it funny how people don't even have basic cooking/baking skills anymore. People I work with used to be amazed that we cooked dinner every night. It's almost like cooking has become this mythical beast that no one really believes in anymore.
Comment by Kali on November 4, 2010 at 10:55pm
I enjoyed your post very much! I am a huge fan of home cooking as well in this world of restaurant dining and it's always surprisingly to realize how few people DO use their kitchen's these days. Especially considering half the food network shows they watch are based on simple, easy, and fast meals. Which reminds me... on a random sidenote... I saw an oven/stove for sale the other day that had a chicking nugget BUTTON. ?!
I will say that despite my devotion to cooking, I do end up eating out a lot due to the boyfriend's job and travel schedule. It's not the majority of nights, to be sure, but ... maybe around 30 or 40 percent? We prefer homecooking, however, and always choose that over dining out.
As far as as menu planning and shopping... I do not have an organized system (due to the random schedules here) but we have a couple of markets within walking distance that have wonderful produce, meats, fish, baked goods, homemade pasta, etc., so we take a more European approach and try to shop for only a few days at a time. That being said.. I am looking forward to opening your links and getting good ideas for a little more of a system and some meal ideas!
Also, I agree that today's children just aren't brought up with kitchen education. Adding to that is the disconnect between the processed foods they often eat and the actual sources of those products. Tragic.
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 5, 2010 at 12:33am
Kali, Thanks for reading and for your great thoughts. My husband and I both used to travel every week or every other week for work, and then, of course, it's impossible to eat at home all the time. Now, I travel less, and it's nice to have the extra time to shop at the farmers' market and our family-owned grocery store, where we know the purveyors and can ask (and trust their opinion of) what's good that day. I think your European approach is great if you have access to those markets nearby; bottom line, I think whatever works for you to buy fresh food, locally grown if possible, and cook and eat it is awesome! But, if you are looking for a more systematic approach, I hope you find my templates helpful. Happy cooking.
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 5, 2010 at 12:36am
Rachel, To your second comment, you're so right: cooking regularly does seem like this crazy mythical thing. I have one friend who literally never cooks. Ever. He's never turned on his oven or stove, and he doesn't own pots or pans. He was at my house when I was making pie crust, and he thought it was insane (though he liked eating the pie!). Even friends who want to cook more think it's kind of crazy that we do it.
Comment by Victoria Brigham on November 5, 2010 at 11:08am
It's absolutely true that fewer and fewer people are cooking at home, but I think that publications like Gourmet are part of the problem. Everyone seems to think that you need a professional degree to cook a meal, and every recipe has a list of ingredients as long as your arm. Personally, if it has more than five ingredients, I probably won't bother with it. I love to cook, but I'm lazy!

Here's my approach to cooking and meal planning: What's on sale? What's in my fridge that needs to be used up? What can I create with it? (Also part of the equation is what do I feel like eating?) I don't do a lot of planning, but I do keep a fairly well stocked fridge and pantry, I shop pretty regularly. I do think that planning is the most difficult part of cooking, but I also think that it makes more sense to buy what's in season and local, and then plan your meals around that. I've just been cooking for so long that I can think something up pretty quickly given a few ingredients.

PS - My favorite cookbook for quick, healthy delicious meals is The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home.
Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on November 5, 2010 at 11:51am
Victoria, Thanks for sharing your approach and The Moosewood cookbook -- I'll have to check that out. I think it's great to hear your philosophy, especially for people who are not as anal-retentive as me. :-)

As you saw in my post, my approach, though very planned, is also very centered on what's in season and locally grown. I figure out *how much* food we need, then I go to the farmers' market to get the right amount of food but *what* I buy is based on what's freshest from the local farmers at our market. I don't know *what* I'm cooking for the week until I see and taste what's fresh and in season at the market.

One thing I forgot to mention in my post but have noted in other posts on my blog: Ask, ask, ask the farmers, butcherers, cheese-makers, whomever you're buying good food from -- "What's best this week?" They'll tell you honestly because they want you to trust them and love their food.
Comment by Rachel Hoff on November 5, 2010 at 12:47pm
I'm fortunate enough to have a mother who LOVES to cook. Not only that but she is, hands down, the best cook I know. I'd like to think she taught me how to cook, but it wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I really started to cook without processed foods. It definitely takes time to learn, something I think a lot of people don't have the patience to do in today instant gratification society.
Comment by Lyndsay Officer on November 9, 2010 at 2:04pm
I really do think that this is the case, I hadn't realised until recently how unusual it is to actually cook with ingredients as opposed to putting 2 or 3 elements in the oven or microwave. Yesterday I was reading this...

I couldn't quite believe how much trouble these people had to make meals that are nothing out of the ordinary. I can see how trying to follow a recipe to a time limit could prove tricky, you always get side tracked by trying to read/find your place/check if it really means... but not to have the feel to just cook some food and to make such a hash of it. I haven't seen the show but it seems crazy that there is a need to provide a something to cook along with, that people actually attempt it (rather than thinking of it as inspiration and then maybe calling it to mind as needed) and that they can get so confused by making a curry.

But then I found this whilst looking for a pumpkin pie recipe that uses actual pumpkins (I'm english so have no cultural knowledge of this!!!!)....


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