Just two generations ago, preparing meals was as much a part of life as eating. Now we’ve given up what is perhaps our best excuse to get together and spend time with the people we love–mealtime–and someone else stands at the stove. We’re either watching cooks on TV like we would a spectator sport or grabbing grub, bagged, and eating it alone and on the go.
The fetishizing of food is everywhere. There are cutthroat competitions and celebrity chefs with TV shows, and both social and mainstream media are stuffed with an endless blur of blogs, demos and crowdsourced reviews. So why in Julia’s name do so many Americans still eat tons of hyperprocessed food, the stuff that is correctly called junk and should really carry warning labels?
It’s not because fresh ingredients are hard to come by. Supermarkets offer more variety than ever, and there are over four times as many farmers’ markets in the U.S. as there were 20 years ago. Nor is it for lack of available information. There are plenty of recipes, how-to videos and cooking classes available to anyone who has a computer, smartphone or television. If anything, the information is overwhelming.
And yet we aren’t cooking. If you eat three squares a day and behave like most Americans (and increasingly, the world is doing just that), you probably get at least a third of your daily calories outside the home. Nearly two-thirds of us grab fast food once a week, and we get almost 25% of our daily calories from snacks. So we’re eating out or taking in, and we don’t sit down–or we do, but we hurry.
Shouldn’t preparing–and consuming–food be a source of comfort, pride, health, well-being, relaxation, sociability? Something that connects us to other humans? Why would we want to outsource this basic task, especially when outsourcing it is so harmful?
For all the hand-wringing about how to fight the obesity epidemic and diet-related maladies like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, there is a fairly simple solution: Do it yourself. Sure, there are challenges to cooking; there are challenges to fixing income inequality too. Our goal should be to make things better, not to accept such a dismal status quo.
When I talk about cooking, something I’ve been doing for the better part of five decades, I’m not talking about creating elaborate dinner parties or three-day science projects. I’m taking about simple, easy, everyday meals. My mission is to encourage novices and the time- and cash-strapped to feed themselves. Which means we need modest, realistic expectations, and we need to teach people to cook food that’s good enough to share with family, friends and, if you must, your Instagram account.
Because not cooking is a big mistake–and it’s one that’s costing us money, good times, control, serenity and, yes, vastly better health.
The Consequence of Convenience
Perhaps a return to real cooking needn’t be far off. A recent Harris poll revealed that 79% of Americans say they enjoy cooking and 30% “love it”; 14% profess to not enjoy kitchen work and just 7% won’t go near the stove at all. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to real cooking, and the demographic breakdown from this survey shouldn’t surprise anyone: 52% of those 65 or older cook at home five or more times per week; only a third of millennials do.
I’m almost 65, which makes me part of the so-called convenience generation. Back in the 1950s most of us grew up in households where Mom cooked virtually every night. Depending on where you lived, the quality of the ingredients varied, but the intention to put a home-cooked meal on the table was pretty much universal. Most people couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
Although frozen dinners were invented in the ’40s, their popularity didn’t boom until televisions became popular a decade or so later. Since then, packaged, pre-prepared meals have been what’s for dinner. The microwave and fast-food chains were the biggest catalysts, but the hegemony of the big food companies–which want to sell anything except the raw ingredients that go into cooking–made the home cook an endangered species.
Still, I find it strange that only a third of young people report preparing meals at home regularly. Isn’t this the same crowd that rails against processed junk and champions artisanal and craft cooking? Aren’t they the ones clogging the web with food porn? And isn’t this generation the most likely to say they’re concerned about their health and the well-being of the planet?
If these are truly the values of many millennials, then their behavior doesn’t match their beliefs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 16% of men and 13% of women ages 20 to 39 eat pizza every single day. The top source of calories for the rest of us is baked goods, followed by chicken, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol and, yes, pizza. Welcome to the Standard American Diet, which is often referred to as SAD, because it is.
There have been halfhearted but well-publicized efforts by some food companies to reduce calories in the sweetest, most hyperprocessed of these foods, but the SAD is still the polar opposite of the healthy, mostly plant-based diet that just about every expert I know says we should be eating. We consume less than half of the fiber and fruit recommended by the USDA, and we eat just 59% of the recommended amount of vegetables. Considering that the government’s standards are not nearly ambitious enough, the picture is clear: by not cooking at home, we’re not eating the right things, and the dire consequences are hard to overstate.
Annual health care expenses related to obesity and its consequences total $150 billion in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and over $1 trillion worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. To help quantify both the hidden and the explicit costs of a poor diet, I recently tried to estimate this impact in terms of a most iconic food, the burger, which generates about $70 billion in gross sales annually in the U.S. alone. I concluded that the profit from burgers is more than offset by the damage they cause in obesity and its related diseases and environmental harm.
Cooking real food is the best defense–not to mention that any meal you’re likely to eat at home contains about 200 fewer calories than one you would eat in a restaurant. Of course, anyone who cooks could have told you that.
Something’s Gone Awry
There’s something peculiar about our obsession with the business of cuisine. There are 24/7 TV shows on food, countless food magazines and more Instagram accounts of impossibly beautiful and exotic dishes than one could count or, frankly, stomach. And it’s evident from the haughty, well-inked celebrity chefs who smile down at us from billboards that the place of food in our day-to-day lives is no match for the place it holds in our culture.
Making food a performance, as entertaining as that can be from our seats in the grandstand, has had a damaging effect on our relationship to cooking. In a land of million-dollar kitchens, Himalayan pink salt, dragonfruit, truffle butter and Wagyu skirt steak, most of us feel like outsiders–and as a result, we cook less than we ever have.
Whether it’s because we’re scared or lazy or time-pressed, or simply that we think the food we cook won’t taste as good as the junk we buy, we have allowed others to feed us, rather than taking charge of feeding ourselves. For the sake of our health, our well-being, our palates and the environment, that has to change–and you don’t have to be Giada De Laurentiis to get on board.
A lot has changed since I started cooking in my late teens. Growing up in New York City a mile from the U.N. headquarters, I was spoiled with easy access to cheap international street food. There were dressed-up hot dogs and spicy Korean bowls and hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants. I got used to those big flavors, so when I went off to college in Massachusetts, where the food at the time was terrible (and unaffordable), it was learn to cook or starve.
So to those Americans, and there are a lot of us, for whom money is a concern, my advice is simple: Buy what you can afford, and cook it yourself. Rice, beans, bacon, salad, bread–few things are cheaper than that. The common prescription is to primarily shop the perimeter of the grocery store, since that’s where fresh produce, meat and seafood, and dairy are. But you’ve still got to dive into the aisles, and not just for toilet paper. Besides beans, whole grains and pasta, there are staples like oil and spices and international ingredients like rice noodles, coconut milk and soy sauce that can bring life to affordable basics.
And to save money and still eat well you don’t need local, organic ingredients; all you need is real food. I’m not saying local food isn’t better; it is. But there is plenty of decent food in the more than 37,000 grocery stores in the U.S. The average grocer carries about 44,000 items.
The other sections you should get to know are the freezer aisle and the canned-goods shelves. Frozen produce is still produce; canned tomatoes are still tomatoes. Just make sure you’re getting real food without tons of added salt or sugar. Ask yourself, Would Grandma consider this food? Does it look like something that might occur in nature? It’s pretty much common sense: you want to buy food, not unidentifiable foodlike objects.
You don’t have to hit the grocery store daily, nor do you need an abundance of skill. But since fewer than half of Americans say they cook at an intermediate level and only 20% describe their cooking skills as advanced, the crisis is also one of confidence. And the only remedy for that is practice.
So, What’s for Dinner?
There’s no mystique to cooking the evening meal. You just have to do a little thinking ahead and redefine what qualifies as dinner. It can be simple: a soup, even one based on frozen vegetables; a piece of meat and a loaf of hearty bread; a chicken that roasts while you make a salad; pasta with vegetables; tacos. Eggs and pancakes seem like treats after sundown, especially for kids. And, I mean, what’s pizza? An open-faced cheese-and-tomato sandwich. Do this with a couple of extra vegetables on top and cooking will start to feel more accessible–and appetizing, if you like pizza.
To get comfortable in the kitchen, pare down your ambitions, ease up on your expectations and start with something manageable that you will actually enjoy eating. Like any skill, cooking gets easier as you do it more; every time you cook, you advance your level of expertise. Someday you won’t even need recipes.
I get that spontaneity is intimidating; so are many recipes. My advice is that you not pay attention to the number of steps and ingredients, because they can be deceiving. Instead, to get an accurate idea of the work involved, see how items need to be prepared. Beware of the hidden steps that appear after the ingredients, like “2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-in. cubes”–that’s 10 minutes’ work right there. (In How to Cook Everything Fast, I incorporated all the slicing and dicing into the directions, but that’s not how most recipes are written.)
Are any do-ahead tips mentioned? If so, try to use them. And remember that the estimated time is often not accurate. Some recipes have you scrambling for 20 minutes, while others that take two hours may include unattended cooking times that free you to do other things as the foods do theirs.
Time, I realize, is the biggest obstacle to cooking for most people. I get some flak for my position, but I stick by it: You must adjust your priorities to find time to cook. Look at your activities and then do some juggling. Move a TV to the kitchen and watch your favorite shows while you’re standing at the sink. Get up 20 minutes earlier so you can get dinner into a slow cooker or pack last night’s leftovers for today’s lunch. Keep the death grip on your devices if you must; they’re smartest when called upon to help you find recipes and learn new techniques. No one is asking you to give up activities you like, but if you’re watching food shows on TV, try cooking instead (or at the very least, do both at the same time).
The best part is, you don’t have to go it alone. Cooking with other people–spouses and kids if you have them, friends and extended family if you don’t–can be an immensely satisfying and relaxing social activity, with the added benefit of having something delicious to eat when you’re done.
If you haven’t ever tried this, give it a whirl; many people find it life-changing. Back in my college days, I was lucky enough to have a roommate who was a prep cook at a restaurant. That’s how I learned to cook basics like hamburgers and scrambled eggs. That’s also when I learned that bringing someone else into the kitchen allows you to share a valuable skill–while helping you put aside any feelings of not-good-enough that your kitchen may elicit.
So forget the blogs and the celebrities and the TV shows and just cook. Preparing my own meals changed my life, setting me on a career-long course to make it easy for others to do the same. I suspect if you try it, it will become your mission too.
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.