How Can We Get America Cooking? One Crumb at a Time | Civil Eats

How Can We Get America Cooking? One Crumb at a Time

To cook or not to cook.

It’s a question that writer Peg Bracken lampooned in 1960, with the publication of The I Hate to Cook Book, which sold three million copies. Three years later, Betty Friedan would challenge women to explore a world beyond the kitchen and other housework in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique.

Fast-forward a half century, and it’s a question that we continue to ask ourselves, chew on—and in many cases—spit out. The most recent round in the debate surfaced last summer, on the heels of a study conducted at North Carolina State University. Based on interviews with 150 mothers, the authors of “The Joy of Cooking?” critique a recent school of thought that the feel-good benefits of home cooking outweigh its burdens, namely lack of time and money.

The study prompted a round-table discussion at the New York Times. It’s provoked writers on both sides of the fence–from Virginia Heffernan’s (perhaps channeling Bracken) provocative “What If You Just Hate Making Dinner?” to farmer Joel Salatin, who blames one naysayer’s indictment of home cooking on a cultural lack of priorities.

Manythis writer included—have lauded the pluses of regularly cooking at home: precious time spent with loved ones and saving money, to name but a few.

But others say they just can’t be bothered. That there isn’t one more minute in a time-starved day to dream up dinner, let alone whip one up in 30 minutes like those television chefs do. These voices cry mercy; they’re working overtime and the last thing they have time to do when they get home is cook. The problem is only made worse by unappreciative, non-participating family members who are quick to criticize the home-cooked handiwork.

Guess what? Everyone has a valid point.

Part of cooking is stumbling, even if you dutifully follow the directions. In a time-crunched world that emphasizes perfection and performance, that’s a risk many of us don’t want to take.

But many of us who do cook do so out of necessity. Making dinner at home is an effective and tangible way to stretch your dollar. It’s a practical matter of getting food on the table and feeding yourself and your family, with kids or without. For the more than 17.5 million food insecure households relying on federal or food pantry assistance, cooking is the antidote to a diet of processed foods. It’s also one of the only ways many Americans can afford to eat organic, humanely produced, pasture-raised, local food, all of which costs much more when it’s prepared for us.

But the rallying cries from the I Won’t Cook or I Don’t Cook camps are so noisy, in fact, we tend to ignore the silent majority that I’ve come to know as the I Can’t Cooks.

One important reason so many are not cooking is because we simply don’t know how. For the moment, let’s leave aside the stuff of celebrity chef competitions and Instagram. Cooking in an everyday context means boiling water for potatoes, carrots, pasta or rice. It means washing and drying lettuce to make a salad. It means chopping an onion and cooking it in oil to season lentils, spinach, an egg.

It’s the simple stuff that so many of us who came of age after the 1950s have never learned. (I didn’t until I was in my 20s. My mother only learned how to cook two years ago, at 68.) Every single time I teach, whether it’s in a supermarket, a spa, at a farmers market or a cooking school, I stand witness to the pervasive dearth of cooking literacy, even on the most basic level.

In 2012, 43 percent of American food dollars were spent outside the home, the highest level since 1970 (when it was 25 percent), the first year the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking consumer food expenditures.

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I can’t help but wonder: If more Americans knew how to carry out these very simple kitchen tasks, and did them with some consistency, could we overhaul the physical health of our very sick nation?

Our country is in the middle of a diet-related health crisis. We’re grossly overweight, undernourished, and getting sicker from diet-related diseases: Thirty-five percent of American adults are considered obese and less than one-third of Americans are meeting federal dietary recommendations for daily vegetable consumption. (On average we eat about 1 ½ cups of vegetables a day, at least half of which come from potatoes and tomatoes.)

In 2012, 9.3 percent of American adults had Type2 diabetesabout one in 11 peopleup from 8.3 percent in 2010. (An additional 86 million Americans have symptoms of pre-diabetes.) Even military experts are concerned that the obesity epidemic is becoming an issue of national security.

Could cooking–or our lack thereof–be linked to the collective state of our waistlines and blood sugar levels? A recent study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition says yes. New data shows that the more people cook at home, the fewer calories they consumed, even if weight loss was not a goal. They also consumed significantly more fiber, fewer carbohydrates, and less sugar.

Cooking naysayers are understandably frustrated and fed up by the endless grind. But is the answer to throw in the dish towel? To wait for the food industrywhose interests are clearly financial–to come up with more sustainable, affordable, healthier convenience foods?

I think not.

If you believe in urban gardening, farmers markets, and investing in local economies, all of which has brought food to the front burner of our collective consciousness over the past 15 years–then cookingeven just once a week–must be part of the equation.

How can we get America cooking? One crumb at a time, literally.

If you know how to cook, teach someone who doesn’t. Your son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother, cousin, neighbor, co-worker, dog walker. The local barista, fire fighter, supermarket cashier. It doesn’t matter how much you know. For the time being, you know more than the other guy. And together at the cutting board, you will teach each other. Eventually your newbie will graduate and pass on your tips and tricks.

Professional chefs: Find time to offer free classes or demos in your community at a food bank, church, senior center or afterschool program. Or lead a tour of a supermarket or farmers market on the basics of stocking a pantry and storing perishables.

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If cooking nightly is impossible, don’t do it. Embark incrementally, maybe with one or two dishes, once or twice a week. And if a solo endeavor seems daunting, find a cooking buddy to share the labor, the cost of ingredients, and kitchen gear. Maybe you cook and eat that night; maybe it’s for the week ahead.

Think of cooking as an ongoing practice rather than a performance. Each time you cook, the process gets easier and more manageable. Only with consistency can we truly see how cooking can be a part of a regular routine.

And include your community when you’re feeling confident. Host a potluck or invite a neighbor for dinner. Everyone needs to eat, after all. This could inspire your dinner guest to return the gesture and build on the momentum.

Cooking can be as practical or as magical as you make it. It can be therapeutic. Or not. It’s up to you and it’s never too late. (And this help desk is always open.)


Kim O'Donnel is a twenty-year veteran of the food world as a chef, cookbook author, journalist, and teacher. In addition to Civil Eats, she has dispensed culinary advice and covered food policy for numerous publications including the Washington Post and USA Today. The first Meatless Monday blogger on record, Kim is a known authority on the continuing trend of eating less meat for health and environmental reasons. Kim is a Staff Writer at LNP | LancasterOnline in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Read more >

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  1. Thanks for a beautiful commentary and great plug for helping people in all parts of our economic start learn to cook. I am a farmer. We have a small diverse sustain as farm and it seems to me ability, willingness and habit of cooking is a far bigger hurdle for us gaining additional customers than price. Our families that cook and have figured out how to use all of a chicken (main meal, soup, stock) report they spend less now than when they shopped 100% at grocery store. One key reason, they are not buying as much unnecesaary processed food with less trips to supermarket.
  2. Jamie Young
    One thing that would help is to put cooking back in the school systems and make sure all children grow up learning about food, nutrition, and how to do the most basic cooking that a human needs to know to feed him- or herself. Put the USDA nutrition requirements into the school cafeterias and make sure what's being served really is what it should be. Catsup is not a vegetable.

    It would help if the food gurus and "foodies" would stop making the art of feeding oneself into, well, an art. It's basic survival. Everyone who eats is a foodie; there's nothing special about it. We need to stop leaving food education up to food companies and food marketing.
  3. I do teach people to cook. My advice to all novice cooks is don't get too ambitious unless you love to cook. No one needs the pressure of getting something edible on the table for dinner when a)they are really hungry and b)their family is really hungry! Start simple and build up skills. And for goodness sakes, don't look to Food TV to show you the way. Most of it is way too ambitious for novice cooks.
  4. Bring Back Home Economics! Says this Home Economist... should be a required course for every high school student... not only cooking, but just basic life skills... handling money, washing clothes, how to grocery shop... we're about to start a 3rd generation of folks who have no clues! Children that have been fed at drive thru windows and out of pizza boxes. That's all they know... it's even hard to get many of them to eat something besides that or macaroni and cheese. It's a sad state of culinary affairs we have. I preach to folks that cooking just isn't that hard to do but folks seem to make it more than it needs to be. that's why I stress nekkid food, cooking and eating...
  5. Patty Plumb
    What a great article. I'm very fortunate that my mother taught each of us how to cook while we were growing up. We learned the small things like making a salad, setting the table, making cookies. Measuring, using a knife safely and cooking on a stove were all things I learned at home. The most important last step for each of us, was planning and preparing meals for the family our senior year of high school. I remember my best friend and I planning together. I'm still learning 35 years later. Learning about nutrition and portions and how to cook for one is a new challenge. Each generation has new cooking techniques and recipes. Thank goodness for online recipes and all the great comments that give ideas.
  6. Along the lines of no time, maybe this should be addressed. Maybe a 30 hour work week, better child care, federally mandated maternity leave & sick time.
    And, at the risk of being politically incorrect, ways to foster two parent families and decrease the divorce rate (esp with children under 16 or so) …and I am talking both heterosexual and homosexual.
  7. I have been teaching cooking for many years, to adults and children alike. The last 5 years I have been teaching cooking from scratch with fresh whole foods to adult school lunch staff- the 'lunch ladies' in California. Guess what? They could cook just fine (which they do at home), but they were fascinated by t he information on seasonality, world flavor profiles, and different varieties of vegetables and fruits.
    Whether or not their cooking skills and new found knowledge translates into school lunch programs depends on their boss - the food service director.
  8. Great post! If families could just have a vision of the difference cooking and eating together would make in their lives! If you'd like an example of your "cooking buddy" idea, here's how a friend and I team up once a month to make a huge batch of stuffed cabbage rolls for dinner that night and freezer meals for the month ahead -
  9. johnberk
    People need to make a connection between their eating habits and quality of life. Maybe that headache you got yesterday was not from working too much, but from the lack of magnesium in your body.
    But it all starts with education, continues with the practice (home-cooking), and finishes with a different lifestyle for the whole nation. If you go to the Western European countries, you will see what I mean. Instead of eating in restaurant/fast food, you should always cook at home, and prepare food that makes you feel good. On the other hand, American tend to spend much more time working, so the possibility of preparing a good and healthy food is limited.
  10. There's a tumblr called that is recipes specifically for people who don't have the time or the energy or the funds to cook super-involved fancy food, but still want to feed themselves something healthier than fast food. It's user-contributed and it's got some good stuff!

  11. I work in the restaurant industry and have a sort-of saying that I judge a restaurant by how well they do the simplest dishes.

    A restaurant that can make a simple side salad delicious and inviting - or a kids chicken breast - I have found those are restaurants that end up being the best top to bottom.

    The point is - some perspective is needed to reduce the pressure of parents feeling they need to master Thai cooking or Julia Childs in order to cook at home.

    The very simplest dishes can be hugely craveable, memorable and healthful. And making something again and again shouldn't be an indictment of sameness, but rather the process of mastery.

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