The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The slow death of the home-cooked meal

A past time. (Photo by: Alan Singer/NBC)

Cooking isn't dead in this country. But it isn't exactly alive and well either.

"How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?" Michael Pollan asked, in a scathing 2009 New York Times piece about the great irony of America's supposed interest in cooking.

Indeed, by virtually any measure one might imagine, Americans are leaving their stoves, ovens, countertops and cutting boards behind — or, at least, untouched a lot more often. The purest example of this trend is playing out in the types of dinners people are eating at home today. Less than 60 percent of suppers served at home were actually cooked at home last year. Only 30 years ago, the percentage was closer to 75 percent.

The fallout stalled a bit during the recession, when cash-strapped families had to backtrack a bit and spend some time over the stove to save money. But it has since resumed its downward trend, and there's little reason to believe its trajectory will change, according to Harry Balzer, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group, which has been following the eating habits of Americans for for almost three decades as part of a series called "Eating Patterns in America," which tracks what, when and how more than 2,000 households eat. 

"This is one of those downward trends to watch," said Balzer. "At the current rate, less than half of all dinners eaten at home in this country will be homemade."

That slow but steady disappearance of cooking in the United States is happening on other levels, too. A comprehensive study published in 2013 showed that all Americans, no matter their socioeconomic status, are cooking less than they have in the past.

Between the mid-1960s and late 2000s, low-income households went from eating at home 95 percent of the time to only 72 percent of the time, middle-income households when from eating at home 92 percent of the time to 69 percent of the time, and high-income households went from eating at home 88 percent of the time to only 65 percent of the time.

Men and women, collectively, are spending less time at the stove. On average, the two genders spend roughly 110 minutes combined cooking each day, compared with about 140 minutes per day in the 1970s and closer to 150 minutes per day in the 1960s. The main driver of this trend has been a significant drop-off in the time women spend cooking.

Americans' growing lack of interest in cooking hasn't merely left households in front of a burner infrequently from a historical perspective — it has led to a reality in which people in this country spend less time cooking each day than in any other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Americans also spend less time eating than people elsewhere in the world.

The reasons for the slow death of cooking in this country are many, but a few stand out. For one, women, who traditionally have carried the brunt of the cooking load, are working more, and therefore spending less time at home cooking. In 2008, women spent 66 minutes per day cooking, almost 50 minutes less than in the 1960s, when they spent upward of 112 minutes on average. Men, by comparison, are actually spending a bit more time at the stove, albeit only a meager eight minutes more. So men have hardly made up the difference.

The other thing that is marginalizing the country's care for cooking is the fact that people simply don't have the time that they used to. The majority of Americans, after all, still enjoy to cook. The problem, according to Balzer, is that time is more precious than it once was, especially now that both genders are working. "People don't have the time for dinner that they used to," he said.

And large food companies, who have made a killing on the country's susceptibility for laziness, aren't helping either. The same corporations that made billions on packaged foods are now capitalizing on the market for "packaged meals." Demand has been especially strong for what are called "fresh prepared foods," meals prepared en masse and served at grocery stores, bodegas, and even pharmacies around the country. Sales of such foods now tower above $25 billion annually, according to market research firm Supermarket Guru.

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us," Balzer told Pollan in 2009. "The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket."

It hasn't even been six years since then, but it's easy to see how it's playing out across America.