Bring Back the Home Cookin'

The movement towards sustainable agriculture and away from processed foods is well under way and only gaining momentum as new facts and studies continue to circulate in the public forum. A significant portion of the population is no longer content with sitting by and blindly accepting the heavily processed substances that bear a vague resemblance to food or the ensuing consequences. For evidence, consider the resurgence of farmer’s markets, a growing emphasis on local agriculture, and even the attitude in popular culture with numerous books and documentaries screaming for change. 

It’s true that the effort to escape the Western Diet and the grips of commercial food giants is an uphill battle. We’re not there yet, but progress is being made and there’s reason to be optimistic. The next logical step in this progression lies in rediscovering and emphasizing the value that cooking offers to our lives. As it relates to health, family life, and finances, the importance of cooking to our overall wellbeing is indisputable. It’s a vital life skill that must not go overlooked.

For the purposes of this essay, cooking is defined as a process that requires more than a few minutes of preparation. Heating up a frozen, prepackaged meal doesn’t make the cut. We’ll put the over/under at fifteen minutes, which is still a bit lenient. Real cooking demands time for the combination of ingredients and their ensuing transformation. It’s not nearly as complicated or intimidating as many think. It’s a simple process of trial and error for beginners. With all the benefits cooking has to offer, a slight learning curve is a fair price.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of cooking is that it is healthier than dining out. When you are directly responsible for each added ingredient, there’s a tendency to keep things simple. This translates to less of those mystery ingredients, as well as less added fat and sugar – staples of the Western diet and processed foods. When cooking, if you’re unsure what the ingredient is, chances are it’s not making its way into the recipe. A good rule of thumb is that simple ingredients typically correspond with better health. If you’ve never heard of an ingredient and it sounds like some sort of chemical, it’s probably best to avoid. If you’re willing to risk it, that’s fine too, we’ll let natural selection work its magic.

Keeping things simple also eliminates much of the temptation to eat unhealthy foods since most are a giant pain in the ass to make. At a recent lecture I attended featuring author and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan, he spoke to this exact point and used French fries as an example. Fries are a staple of almost every fast food meal; they’re the standard side. However, if you’re cooking at home, fries don’t present themselves as a logical option.

To make homemade fries, the process involves peeling the potatoes, cutting them into sticks, letting them soak in cold water for a few hours, and finally frying them. That’s quite a commitment. Chances are you’ll be opting out if it becomes a matter of hours rather than seconds at a drive through. In this regard, cooking takes care of a major challenge we’re faced with when eating out because many unhealthy foods no longer present a feasible option.

Another benefit of cooking is that it plays an important role in bringing people together, especially in the immediate family. Sitting down to share a home cooked meal is critical in building relationships, and is that much more important when it comes to children. Statistics show that regular family meals have a major influence on the development of children, helping to strengthen self-esteem, academics, vocabularies, and overall health.[1] 

Whether you’re a parent or not, it offers an opportunity to connect with those closest to us, and as a result has a positive impact on our own happiness. If nothing else, sharing a home cooked meal shows that you care and are genuinely interested in the lives of those around you. The cooking process itself also offers a great outlet to interact and engage in meaningful conversation, not to mention an opportunity to hone the craft or pass along an important life skill.

If that’s not reason enough, cooking also has its financial advantages. Even if you buy the most expensive ingredients at the grocery or farmer’s market, you’re still saving money. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use Whole Foods as an example. The other day I purchased four organic chicken breasts ($12.49), a bundle (if that’s what you call it) of asparagus ($4.99), and one dozen local whole-wheat rolls ($5.95 – about $0.50/roll), for a total of $23.43. If I prepared this all at once for a family of four, the cost would come out to $4.87/person.

You would be hard pressed to eat under $5 at most fast-food restaurants these days, never mind the quality of the food you’re putting into your body. If you dine out at any decent establishment you’re looking more in the $10-15 dollar range for dinner. Based on these numbers and the most conservative estimates, over the course of a month the savings for dinner alone would be close to $150 dollars and over $1800 for the year. Cooking with quality ingredients is much more affordable than many believe.

When considering all these advantages of cooking to our health, family, and finances, we begin to understand just how important of a life skill it is. Cooking is essential to our overall wellbeing, a concept that encompasses comfort, health, and happiness. However in recent years there’s been a shift away from emphasis on life skills such as cooking, not only in our homes, but the education system as well. Budget cuts in public schools have led to the elimination of electives such as art, music, home economics, and physical education. Almost all of which are more important to health and long-term happiness than many traditional subjects.

Cooking falls under the umbrella of home economics, a subject that needs revitalized and brought back in an updated format. Much has been written on the downfall of home ec and where it came up short, which is why we must adopt a different approach. Alice Lichtenstein, Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, suggests a more comprehensive curriculum focusing on, “Basic cooking techniques; caloric requirements; sources of food, from farm to table; budget principles; food safety; nutrient information, where to find it and how to use it; and effects of food on well-being and risk for chronic disease.”[2] It’s hard to argue with the importance of any of the aforementioned items.

The current shift away from the Western diet and processed foods, leads in one direction, towards the reemergence of cooking. We must not only recognize this, but emphasize its importance in our daily lives, both in classrooms and our homes. Cooking a nice meal doesn’t always take hours; often all it takes is 45 minutes. It’s a 45 minutes well spent on your health and family, and it saves you money in the process. An invaluable life skill that touches on all the cornerstones of wellbeing: comfort, health, and happiness. Bring back the home cookin'.

[1] Fishel, Anne, Ph.D. "The Importance of Eating Together." The Family Dinner Project. Web. 
[2] Lichtenstein, A. H., and D. S. Ludwig. "Bring Back Home Economics Education." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 303.18 (2010): 1857-858. Web.