A home-cooked meal is something we often take for granted. Even worse, with today’s busy lifestyles placing a premium on speed and convenience, home cooking has become a hassle for many of us.
We seek to skip this step if possible, grabbing meals on the go, snacking from whatever’s available at the nearest vending machine. It’s a lot easier than planning and preparing your own food.
But the easy thing isn’t always what’s best for you. And the pursuit of ease becomes habitual. Even when we could spare time and effort to cook meals, we tend to favor convenience. It’s what we’ve grown accustomed to.
By choosing not to cook more, however, we may be regressing.
Cooking and evolution
Control of fire gave our species an unparalleled edge. In Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil presents multiple sources of evidence pointing towards the evolutionary advantages of cooking.
When you cook food, you unlock more nutrients and energy while also making it easier to break down and digest. Cooking and the associated preparation of foodstuffs also help remove substances that might prove toxic or unpalatable.
Since we’ve been cooking for hundreds of thousands of years, our bodies have actually evolved accordingly. Our jawbones, for instance, grew smaller, with no room for third molars, which is why impacted wisdom teeth are so painful. However, consistent access to better nutrition allows us to redirect those growth resources towards a bigger brain and larynx, making us smarter, more social, and ultimately even better at surviving.
Modern health benefits
Yet modern realities have changed. Most people today need to survive in the urban jungle instead of the actual wilderness. We’re no longer hunting prey or foraging for fruit and nuts. Agricultural production and supply chains bring food to us.
The argument against cooking is usually tied in some way to the fact that we’re competing against each other. Why don’t you feel like you have time or energy to cook? Probably because you have to exert yourself at work, where your stress stems from the competition and the threat of losing your place.
Thus, pursuing convenience seems to make sense. But doing so can actually compromise your health, which can undermine your performance and quality of living. Studies indicate that home-cooked meals are associated with a better diet, normal BMI, and lower fat levels, with corresponding implications for health and longevity.
When you eat out, you’ve no control over the preparation. You don’t know what goes into those meals, which may include processed ingredients. The best-case scenario is eating at a healthy restaurant. Not so ideal is buying ready-to-eat food, which can really be anything from deli prepared meals to potato chips and frozen pizza. Long term, you’ll end up paying the bill in healthcare expenses, maybe several times over.
Home cooking’s decline
Unfortunately, in the modern era, it looks like convenience is winning. Studies show that from 1965 to 2007, there was a decrease of 16 to 30% in home meal preparation. And even though that trend may have leveled off, the proportion and types of food we eat at home have changed.
More people favor takeout and delivery, store-bought food, and outright junk. In 2014, research showed that less than 60% of food eaten at home had also been cooked at home. Around the same time, figures on restaurant spending indicated that affluent households are allocating more of their discretionary income towards eating away from home.
Not cooking at home is a step backward for reasons of nutrition. But it may also be hamstringing you financially. Convenience, after all, comes at a cost. So is it worth paying more for food that delivers less substantive nutrition for the sake of saving time and energy?
The pandemic shift
Without moralizing, the answer to that question might still be yes. That reflects the realities and pressures we face in today’s world. But the pandemic may have given us a chance to change that.
Reports indicated that during the first several months of the pandemic, most consumers were cooking at home more. Given the situation, that was understandable, but it also shifted attitudes towards home cooking.
Less than 7% would cook less after reopening, and the sentiment to continue home cooking was especially strong among younger demographics. This is vital because lack of skill tends to be a barrier for those who grew up in households where home cooking wasn’t prominent.
However, this is also tied to the simultaneous shift towards remote work. The threat is that the convenience of home cooking will dissipate along with the home office itself. And even for those who continue to prepare food at home, fatigue is a factor.
Making this a lasting trend requires the continued lowering of barriers. Take advantage of apps that can do meal planning for you, including identifying which healthy meals take less time to prepare. Healthy ready-to-cook meals can be ordered online, eliminating the prep work. Make cooking more convenient, and you can avoid regressing in a world that marches steadily forward.