People Are Cooking Less Than Ever Before—Here’s Why We’re Determined to Change That

Photo: Getty Images/Andrea Gjestvang
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Judging by all the art-directed overnight oats and grain bowls on Instagram, you'd think that we're in the midst of a healthy home cooking renaissance. But the data tells a different story—one littered with Postmates delivery fees and take-out containers.

Well, at least that's the case for those under 40. A recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that "millennials consume food in a restaurant or bar around 30 percent more often than any other generation." The 23-to-38-year-old set also allocates less time to meal prep than their older counterparts—around just 13 minutes per day, which adds up to nearly an hour less per week than Gen X—and when they do head to the grocery store, they spend more on prepared foods, pasta, and sweets than other age groups.

Millennials also aren't particularly confident in their kitchen abilities when compared to other generations, which could be leading to a reliance on prepackaged or frozen food. Home improvement site Porch surveyed 750 people and found that while 76 percent of Baby Boomers and 72 percent of Gen X consider themselves to be good cooks, only 64 percent of millennials said the same. They were also found to be less able to perform basic cooking tasks—like making a salad or preparing salmon—and less able to identify kitchen tools like a butter knife or garlic press. Perhaps this is because they're the generation least likely to have grown up with parents who made home-cooked food, according to the survey.

As someone on the older end of the millennial spectrum, I know ours is a generation with epidemic levels of stress and burnout. So can you blame us for choosing convenience whenever we can?

At the same time, America is experiencing a massive takeout boom, thanks to delivery apps that bring all manner of restaurant meals to your door in just a few taps. In a June 2018 report titled "Is the Kitchen Dead?," analysts at investment firm UBS predicted that global online food ordering will grow by 20 percent per year between now and 2030. The market is currently valued at $35 billion, but within the next 11 years, it's set to reach $365 billion, if not more. The report also envisions a future in which drone delivery and robot chefs lower the costs of takeout to the point where it's actually more expensive to cook a meal at home than to order in.

Which brings us to another barrier to home cooking for all age groups: There's a common perception that healthy, fresh ingredients are more expensive than the alternative. Researchers have found this to be marginally true—one meta-analysis done by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2013 found that diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts cost $1.50 per day more than those centered around processed foods, meats, and refined grains. Although $1.50 a day may not seem like much, it adds up to $550 per year, which could be prohibitive to those on limited budgets.

As someone on the older end of the millennial spectrum, I know ours is a generation with epidemic levels of stress and burnout. So can you blame us for choosing convenience whenever we can? After waking up at dawn to hit the gym, spending an entire day on overdrive at work, navigating an evening commute, and spending QT with loved ones (or, in the cases of those who have to work multiple jobs to put food on the table, any time at all), the thought of grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up can feel straight-up overwhelming. (Especially when the alternative—summoning pad Thai to your doorstep and collapsing in front of Game of Thrones—is so alluring.) Which is why I ask...

Is it really such a big deal if we're not cooking as much?

Of course, there are plenty of seemingly healthy fast-casual restaurants and packaged, processed foods available today. But should people really be relying on these as cornerstones of their diets?

Many wellness experts don't think so. Obviously, take-out food itself isn't always great for you. Dietician Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, points to a 2014 study in the journal Public Health Nutrition, which found that people who frequently cook dinner at home consume less sugar, fat, and calories than those who cook less. "We know that restaurant food tastes so good because they cook with more butter, oil, sugar, and salt than we would ever use at home," says Zuckerbrot, who also wrote The F-Factor Diet. "[Chefs] are trying to excite your taste buds and give you strong flavors...but you get a side of spinach, and it's sauteed in 500 calories of oil."

Zuckerbrot also points out that the typical take-out portion is far larger than a person actually needs, and it can lead us to overeat without even realizing it. Once in a while, meals like this are NBD—in fact, giving in to your cravings every once in a while can be a plus for your mental health. But studies have repeatedly shown the ill effects of eating too much sodium, sugar, and inflammatory fat, so these things shouldn't be considered staples in your meal rotation.

Plus, as chef Dan Churchill points out, home cooking gives you more control over the quality of your ingredients, which are an important factor in overall health. "Cooking for yourself demonstrates not only respect for yourself and your body, but for the ingredients you're using and the people who grew them," he says. Zuckerbrot notes that you're able to prioritize organic, local, humane, and sustainably sourced ingredients when cooking for yourself—things that aren't always easy to find on take-out menus—not to mention you're reducing waste in the form of to-go containers and bags.

Why home cooking is actually a form of self-care

Fair enough, but what about the fact that many of us are often too exhausted and overscheduled to think about cooking three actual meals each day? Zuckerbrot argues that meal prepping can alleviate a lot of the stress around home cooking. (Say, chopping veggies in advance for a stir-fry, or making a big batch of soup on a Sunday and portioning it out for the week.) But there's also a case to be made for cooking as a form of stress relief in itself—one backed up by many mental health experts.

According to Alma mental health community member Ruschelle Khanna, LCSW, home cooking is an ideal mindfulness practice. "The process of following a recipe, measuring ingredients, paying attention to textures and smells, and even setting the table fall into the category of 'executive function' skills," she explains. "For anyone with depression, anxiety, brain injuries, chronic illness, or just anyone wanting to maintain brain health as they age, cooking is a way to encourage this. When we have strong executive function skills we also tend to manage anger and regulate emotions more effectively."

Churchill agrees with this sentiment. "Cooking allows the mind to relax and is very therapeutic," he says. "For millennials who are living fast-paced lives, they're constantly experiencing stress and can really benefit from the time to think creatively."

Khanna adds that preparing fresh, vitamin- and mineral-rich food at home can help combat nutrient deficiencies and gut issues that can have a detrimental effect on mental health.

And then there's the fact that home cooking can be a super social activity, which benefits us in more ways than one. "In a country where nearly 50 percent of the population feels lonely on a regular basis, eating together is more important than ever," Khanna says. "Sharing meals promotes community. Community prevents isolation, which leads to a number of chronic health conditions including depression, anxiety and immune disorders." If you don't live with roommates or a partner, Churchill recommends gathering your friends for potluck dinners on the reg, asking everyone to bring a dish. "You're doing something fun for yourself and experiencing it with friends while getting inspiration and ideas along the way," he says. (Also, leftovers.)

Clearly, we're on team cooking, and luckily there are lots of others on board as well. Meal kit services are helping people build confidence in the kitchen without sacrificing convenience, while startups like Made In and Material provide kitchenware basics at lower price points. Non-profits like Cooking Matters and Fresh Approach are working to make cooking more accessible for families on a budget, offering nutrition and cooking classes using affordable ingredients. (Fresh Approach also offers farmer's market produce vouchers to its participants in the San Francisco Bay area.) For our part, The Well+Good Cookbook was created to bring you simple, easy-to-follow recipes that wellness experts actually make at home on busy weeknights—all of which have added health benefits, from improved energy and focus to better sleep and skin.

Bottom line, home cooking is a form of self-care that affects mental and physical health in an array of ways. So why not carve in a little space for it in between boutique fitness classes and face masks?

Today on Well+Good, we're launching Cook With Us, a new program designed to help you do just that. We believe that cooking is an important piece of the wellness puzzle and that everyone can make magic (or at least some avo toast) happen in the kitchen. Sometimes, you just need someone to show you where to start, and maybe a few others cheering you on. It doesn't need to be complicated, or every day—like most things in the wellness world, a little goes a long way. 

Cook With Us is kicking off with a week of stories that'll inspire you to sharpen your knives, plus introduce you to healthy recipes we're sure will become weekday staples at your house (like this sweet potato gnocchi and these gluten-free chicken fingers). And stay tuned for the launch of our new digital community, a place for you to chat, learn, and share your favorite recipes with other wellness-minded home cooks. Think book club takes the kitchen. 

Make a promise to start cooking tonight (maybe snag a copy of our cookbook) and meet us in the kitchen.

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