• Cooking Can Be Complicated

    Posted on September 12, 2014 by in Blog, Research


    by Sarah Bowen

    Recently, several members of the VIA team published our first article based on our research.  We have gotten a lot of attention in the news media – and some controversy.

    In the article, we talk about the pressures that mothers face in cooking and feeding their families on a daily basis.  Lately, we increasingly hear messages in the news media that Americans need to spend more time cooking foods from scratch.  We need to “get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden,” says Mark Bittman, a famous chef and cookbook writer.

    We agree that cooking can be a joy, and many of the mothers we interviewed said that they enjoyed cooking, because it allowed them to be creative or to show their families they cared.  The people in our study said they cooked dinner at home between 5 and 6 nights a week, on average.  However, the interviews and observations that we did with North Carolina also revealed something that is frequently overlooked: how hard cooking and feeding a family is, day in and day out.  Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.

    For example, some of the people we interviewed worked irregular schedules.  They might not know their schedule until the night before, and then they would have to scramble to figure out childcare and transportation arrangements.  This kind of situation is increasingly common.   As real wages have stagnated, many households depend on every adult family member working, sometimes in multiple jobs and jobs with nonstandard and unpredictable hours, to make ends meet.  It’s not surprising that people struggle to find time to cook.  And, of course, cooking isn’t just about the time it takes to prepare the meal. It also involves planning ahead to be sure the ingredients are on hand, and it means cleaning up afterwards.

    Financial considerations also create challenges.  As we mentioned, most of the people we interviewed cooked almost every day, in part because it was more economically.  But they also said that they made tradeoffs in terms of what they cooked, in order to save money.  The ingredients that go into meals considered to be healthy—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—are expensive. A recent study of food prices around the globe found that it costs $1.50 more per day—or about $550 a year per person—to eat a healthier diet than a less healthy diet.  Many of the families we met also lacked reliable transportation, and therefore typically shopped just once a month. As a result, they avoided buying fresh produce, which spoiled quickly.

    Finally, feeding others is complicated.  It involves taking multiple preferences into consideration, and balancing time and money constraints.  We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served. Rather than risk trying new and expensive foods that might prove unpopular, many mothers opted to cook the same foods again and again. They reasoned that it was better to stick with foods (often processed) that they knew their families would eat, rather than risk wasting money and food.

    Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal.  But the emphasis on home cooking often ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding.  Without working to address these things – for example, by making sure that people are paid fair wages or that all neighborhoods have access to healthy and affordable foods—discussions about home cooking are going to increase pressure on mothers without helping them do what many feel is important: being able to sit down and enjoy good food with their families.


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