Does Anyone Want to Bring Back the Home-Cooked Dinner?

After all, 30 years ago, nearly three-quarters (72%) of main courses served at dinner were homemade, but by 2010, that total had declined to 59%, according to the NPD Group, which tracks consumer consumption patterns. (Institute of Food Technologists)

An article by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones on Wednesday addressed American food-dollar spending patterns as compared between the 80s, and now. To quickly sum it up, we’re not eating less meat (just spending less on it than in 1982) and we’re moving at least some of that money we’re “saving” on meat to highly processed foods. Relative spending on fruits, vegetables, and grains are pretty stable (dairy spending has fallen a little — perhaps for the same reason meat-spending fell?).

Meat prices decreased due to the rise of large factory farms (i.e. – CAFOs) and the steady decline of smaller farms. Workers earn lower wages* in these large factory farms and animal production has been streamlined. If you’re not familiar with some problems with CAFOs, a Google search will help you out, but some highlights include: force-feeding animals animal-byproduct & large amounts of corn, use of hormones, small enclosures, water pollution, air pollution, and large doses of antibiotics. I suspect, especially after visiting a couple of confinement operations in Iowa, that these types of business practices are part of the reason dairy prices fell as well — cows fed hormones so they’ll lactate for a longer duration and more heavily, for instance.

Bowl of Grapefruit

But back to the processed foods. Given subsidies handed over to corn & soy farmers, and the fact that corn and soy are in pretty much everything, it should come as no surprise that there are more processed food options (“but these ingredients are cheaper!”) and that marketers are pushing these products, hard. We call these things “fast” and “convenient,” and perhaps they are — for us, on the consumer end. It only takes a few minutes to microwave a Lean Cuisine, or an Amy’s Burrito. I can buy a gluten-free pizza (or a regular, deep-dish, stuffed crust one) and it’ll be ready in just 15-20 minutes (probably less time than it takes to have one delivered). Candy bars, a frozen teriyaki bowl, sprouted grain chips, Cheetos, frozen novelties — you know what this list looks like. You know how many things come ready-to-eat. You know these things seem (and often are) cheaper calorie for calorie than whole food alternatives. You’re probably also pretty familiar that you can buy the “good” processed foods — i.e., Garden Burgers, Immaculate Baking Co. refrigerated cookie dough, and Amy’s canned soup (I suspect my almond milk also counts), or the “bad” processed foods — i.e., Eggo Waffles, corn dogs, and Pillsbury Cinnamon rolls.

The reasons for purchasing these things: they’re fast; convenient; easy-to-eat on-the-go; the kids like them–hell, you like them; you’d like something easy when you get home from work or between shifts. The list could go on (and I encourage you, if you eat a lot of processed foods to let me know what and why in the comments) and does go on.

One of the reasons  I ate processed foods growing up: when I was in middle school, my mom went back to school and some evenings both she and my dad would come home late. Thanks to Hamburger Helper, I could have dinner ready for them when they arrived. It was great. Now, I find things like almond/soy/hemp milk convenient especially since it’s suddenly cheaper than my organic milk (I just try not to think about who’s really paying the true cost of that, most of the time), and sometimes it’s nice to just buy a jar of pasta sauce, rather than make my own — especially since I don’t have room (or enough stability in a location) to have a garden.

Simple Summer Dinner – Peaches, Greens, & Sun-Dried Tomatoes
As an adult, I’m trying to make more conscious decisions about food. I’m trying to eat more whole foods and cook dinner, from real ingredients, almost every night (the same for breakfast and lunch). I’ve joined a CSA. I try to support one of my local farmers markets. I try, when I can afford to support a restaurant, to “vote with my dollar” and eat/drink at restaurants that support local(ish) agriculture. I’m doing this on a tight budget — and it is doable to some extent regardless of your budget (especially with farmers markets & CSAs now beginning to accept SNAP).But this creates the same bubble Philpott talks about — the farmers market-shopping, food co-op belonging, slow foodist — and doesn’t help push toward larger social changes. I’ve written recently about Label it Yourself (LIY) to talk  about the inclusion of GMO in our foodstuffs. In the past, the Rainforest  Action Network pushed forward a campaign to label palm oil in products (I think this needs to happen again, considering how much of an impact palm oil has on rainforest habitats). I’m not convinced a stickering campaign on processed foods is quite the right thing either — but maybe a Make It Yourself campaign would raise the visibility of the statistic I dropped at the beginning of this post — that only 59% of dinners are actually homemade.

The key, of course, is to reach audiences that need to be targeted in a way that they’ll be receptive to the idea of  more homemade meals. A website with correlations between diet and chronic illness that are easily digestible (har har), and links to blogs/recipes that focus on “this really doesn’t take longer than processed foods” options? More community potlucks organized by community members already receptive to the idea of increasing the slow food movement? I’d love to know other ideas. I’d love to work on a direct action campaign to push people toward eating fewer processed foods.

Tom Philpott’s article in Mother Jones seems particularly well timed, since it’s the beginning of summer. Yesterday, a friend and I talked about how we eat better in the summer due to a greater availability of produce. But how to get people to eat more of that produce? One of my co-workers makes gentle fun of me every time I munch on a carrot as part of my lunch, or drink “slime” (a smoothie). He often eats Wendy’s or some meal that can be heated in the microwave or toaster oven, from the freezer section. When he brings leftovers, though, he tells me and he’s proud of himself (and I’m proud of him too). I want to see more of that. I want to encourage more of that.

Foraged Purslane

*I haven’t independently verified this, but that’s the common rhetoric.


One thought on “Does Anyone Want to Bring Back the Home-Cooked Dinner?

  1. I think *time* is such a huge factor here. If the cards are played right, it really doesn’t have to be that expensive money-wise to eat quite well, assuming you have the space for a garden a some small livestock (poultry, rabbits). Even then, as you’ve noted, you can figure out how to budget carefully. And/or it’s possible to get a community garden plot or even volunteer on someone’s farm once a week in exchange for produce and eggs.

    But time: it takes time to grow the food, to harvest the food, and finally, to prepare the food. So. In an entertainment-obsessed and work-driven society, are we willing to set aside the time necessary? Does it feel like a sacrifice or a worthy endeavor to do so? I must confess that I find myself too often annoyed that I have to take the time necessary to cook something really nutritious and wonderful (unless I’m doing it with someone else and/or for others, and then it becomes a delightful social occasion). And I am one of those who like food and gardening, and know why it matters! So what about those who don’t? How can we encourage the time necessary for good eats, to such an extent that folks realize it really is worth giving up another hour at work or on the computer to do so?

    I think a big thing here must be relationship. Yes, obviously, relationship between our physical selves and the earth. But even further, what about human relationship? Can we decide that time spent in the garden and in the kitchen is time for friends, roommates, and families to set aside as important for being, working, and eating together? Can that time become valued time, not tedious but rather looked forward to, resulting in healthier relationships, healthier food, and healthier bodies?

    Just some thoughts . . .

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