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: 183

Tags: Bittman, Mark, Reichl, Ruth, cooking, home, menu, plan


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Comment by Sue Gee on November 27, 2013 at 7:21pm

Just participated in a Farm to School event where we served an apple and squash dish to an entire local grade school.  The ingredients were from local farmers and the children got a little talk about how apples and squash grow.  There were door prizes for a bag with all the ingredients needed to make the dish and the recipe.  This is part of a program that our county extension office is doing in the local community (they received a Federal grant) to encourage good eating habits and regular exercise.  

Comment by Kim Demarest on November 27, 2013 at 5:46pm

Rachel, wow I just had this argument at the junior high. We make our children take PE classes, but we don't teach them how to grow, harvest or cook any real food. I think our kids would be healthier if they knew what they were eating.

I find that if I spend an hour or two in the kitchen on one of my days off I can decrease the amount of takeout food we eat. First I always keep a pre-made salad in the fridge. I can pull lettuce and greens from the garden, put it into the salad container or even a large ziplock bag and tada salad with every meal. No fuss no muss. I like to bake a chicken, use the legs and thighs for dinner, the breasts sliced for salads, sandwiches and just for eating. I'm not sure though if someone just started cooking would be able to pull this off. It takes planning and if they don't cook it is hard to eye whats in the fridge to throw together for dinner without a plan.

Comment by Patricia Medlin on June 24, 2012 at 10:42pm

I usually prepare almost all of our meals at home. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We eat out maybe once every week or two. It makes a meal out more special and I enjoy cooking. We are retired and have a nice size garden and orchard and many of our meals are entirely homegrown. We are fortunate in this manner. I plan meals , many times, by what is ready to pick. I believe people who enjoy preparing their own meals would prefer to do this, unfortunately life as we know it now is much too busy and filled with other things.  We don't live simple lives. Living bigger has become more important than living well, in all aspects of our lives.

Comment by Stephanie M, Together In Food on February 18, 2011 at 3:35pm
Flour Sack Mama, Thanks for reading and for your comment. I love your tactic of keeping fresh produce in the fridge and containers that are healthy and easy for your kids to snack on. And I have found that shopping seasonally at farmers' markets is doable cost-wise, especially if you eat more veggies/fruits and less meat, and if you're willing to buy "cosmetically challenged" items that are still perfectly good to eat.
Comment by Flour Sack Mama on February 17, 2011 at 3:47pm
Thanks for writing about this.  I can relate to the struggles of people not finding time to cook.  I've been (I'm not proud to say) in that situation where it just seemed easier to get something through the fast-food line.  But I also agree that any effort at eating healthy at home is worth it for our families.  A simple change like keeping fresh carrot sticks and apples in the refrigerator, and then taking them along in containers for my young kids during a car trip, makes a big difference in their diets.  Specifically to answer your two questions:  I cook all but perhaps two meals a week at home.  It seems that about once or twice a week, we'll find a reason or excuse to pick something up at an inexpensive restaurant.  But my family mostly appreciates when I(we) cook, even if it's simple.  I agree with the idea of shopping based on what's freshly in season (and for me, on sale) first, then thinking of what I can make with it.  I write about the struggle for balance in our lives, trying to be green without a large budget, at http://FlourSackMama.blogspot.com.
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.
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 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 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 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?



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