Whatever happened to dinner parties? The kind where people would take turns hosting a dinner and the host would either prepare the whole meal or just the entrée and guests would bring a side, dessert or appetizer. Heck, whatever happened to Sunday dinners for that matter?
My kids used to complain about having to stay home on Sundays. I believed it was a time to recharge and reconnect. But boy would they love dinner, always home prepared and eaten together as a family. In fact we ate a home cooked dinner together as a family most days of the week working around sports, school activities, work and a hectic life. The meals were many times simple, but always enjoyable.
Trends in home cooking
A 2013 survey analysis published in the Nutrition Journal compared food preparation trends of 1965-66 to 2007-08. The results revealed that across all socioeconomic levels there has been a significant drop in consumption of food sourced and prepared at home – nearly 25% – with the largest decline between 1965 and 1992.
Now, kitchens are always pristine without a splash of tomato sauce found on the wall or a stain around a stove burner. To be more precise, we’re spending much less time preparing meals and shifting the focus on going out to eat, bringing prepared foods home or grazing throughout the day and avoiding the whole “meal” concept.
In order to understand why people aren’t cooking, you have to understand why people are going out to eat in the first place.
Morgan Stanley conducted a study on trends in the restaurant industry. The results revealed that taste, value and quality are what millennials want when they go out to eat. And eating healthy to restaurant goers, in descending order, means: fresh, less processed and fewer artificial ingredients. Lower in calories ranks fifth. So as long as that burrito is made with fresh lettuce and avocado, consumers don’t care how many calories are added by the mounds of cheese or how much butter is lathered on top of that steak before it is brought to the table.
For quick service, Chipotles and Panera rules, for casual dining Texas Roadhouse and the Cheesecake factory win. And if there’s an app to download for further convenience, Starbucks and Dominos top all others.
Does anyone realize how much fat and calories are in cheese, most sauces, salad dressings and soups from these restaurants?
It may be fresh and tasty, but it’s death by a thousand bites.
It’s contributing to the rise in diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
What people want when it comes to food
So people want food that is fresh, less processed, and of good quality, quickly and conveniently.
Why aren’t people cooking more at home? All the above can be achieved by cooking at home. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and takes much less time than it does to drive over and eat at a quick serve or casual dining restaurant, then drive home.
Another diet and nutrition survey analysis done in the UK concluded that as kitchen skills went up, the consumption of ultra processed foods(UPF) that are high in fat and salt went down. They conclude:
“Greater encouragement of these skills may help reduce reliance on UPF.”
Now we’re getting to the meat of the problem. The 2013 analysis of home-cooking trends mentioned earlier concluded also:
“Efforts to boost the healthfulness of the US diet should focus on promoting the preparation of healthy foods at home while incorporating limits on time available for cooking.”
In other words, the emphasis has to be on teaching people how to cook tasty meals using fresh, quality ingredients that don’t cost much and can be prepared quickly.
In addition, I would add to that the importance of learning time-saving tips and always having key ingredients in the house.
Barbara’s 12 step process for cooking a meal at home
No longer are students required to take Home Ec. I’ll never forget making my first Fluffy Omelet in Mrs. Sturtevant’s cooking class. I remember learning how long to whip the eggs and how to fold in the cheese. It was really a soufflé. My pride puffed up as much as that omelet. I was amazed that I could make something so light and cheesy and fluffy. A seed was planted.
My cooking prowess evolved over many years and this is how I look at the meal planning process
- Start with the plate.
- Mix and match from each category and start with simple ingredients. Follow your instincts and learn from there. There’s nothing difficult with cooking pasta if you follow the directions on the box. Add a large can of tuna. Add some fresh veggies that you enjoy – like cucumbers, celery, cabbage or whatever. Now you have just made the skeleton for Tuna Macaroni Salad. You just need to add “the glue” described next.
- Add seasoning/condiment/sauce/broth. This is the “embellisher”, topper or ingredient glue. It could be the mayonnaise/mustard added to the tuna macaroni salad along with the salt and pepper. Or it could be the tomato meat sauce topping the pasta or the broth and spices added to the soup. Or it could be the dressing on top of the salad. Here’s how I think about how to flavor certain foods:
- Consider the density of your food. A whole potato takes much longer to cook that a broccoli stem. You can roast them together by cutting up the potato into small pieces so that they will take the same time to cook as the broccoli. Roasting in the oven usually means baking at a higher temperature like 375-400. Additionally, sautéing spinach in a pan will take much less time than sautéing Brussels sprouts.
- Use recipes for a guideline on cooking times and temperatures. Every oven varies in how it cooks. If you are roasting meats or poultry, use a meat thermometer and follow these guidelines.
- When you start preparing your meal, begin with the item that takes the longest to cook. If you are going to make a macaroni and tuna salad, start with the pasta before you start cutting up your veggies. If you are making a tomato meat sauce, warm up your tomato sauce while the meat if browning. If you are going to make a soup get the chicken and stock simmering before you start cutting up the veggies.
- Take shortcuts when you can. Buy frozen chopped veggies to add to soups and casseroles and frozen fruit to make crisps and smoothies. Find a good tomato sauce that has no added sugar listed in the ingredients. Buy canned beans if you don’t feel like preparing your own dried beans.
- Use a Crockpot and let dinner cook while you’re working. The night before, get everything in the Crockpot – the meat, starch, veggies and liquid and seasoning – and let it cook on low while you’re at work.
- Cook for more than one meal. It takes the same amount of time to cook two chicken breasts as it does one. Make extra and use in a different recipe later in the week. Instead of making salmon for one dinner, make extra and put some in a salad for lunch or dinner the next day.
- Use your freezer. If you don’t want to eat chicken again that week, then make extra and freeze it to use another time in a soup or casserole. Other foods that freeze well are soups, rice, and casseroles.
- Begin to think of ways to reduce fat and sodium. These are the culprits that contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. Buy light dressing where there is less oil or add extra vinegar to your own dressing. Paul Newman makes a light dressing that has much more vinegar added to it in place of the calorie laden oil. Substitute some of your mayo with fat-free Greek yogurt and mustard. If you are using any canned goods in your meal, don’t add extra salt – the canned good has plenty of it already. And if you’re really need more salt after you take your first bite, just sprinkle it on then.
- Develop your shopping list template and keep a running list on your cell phone. Keeping your grocery shopping to once a week will not only make sure you have everything you need, but it will get you in the mindset of meal planning. It will also lower your grocery bill. The more often you grocery shop, the more unneeded, weight-producing foods will jump into that cart. I know.
This is how I think about my shopping organization:
I always keep simple ingredients around so I can throw together a meal in 15 minutes if I have to. An old standby is a chicken quesadilla with leftover chicken, sliced cabbage, black beans, salsa and grated cheese. It’s really good if you have a George Foreman Grill and heat it in there so the cheese melts….yum! Heck, I’ve even made scrambled eggs with a salad and toast for dinner.
Let’s revive home-cooking
I can’t say the meals I cooked in my younger years were always glamorous but as I learned more and more about health and nutrition, the meals became healthier and I became braver. I graduated from the boxed powdered orange macaroni and cheese to exploring on my own. First I started experimenting with whole grain pasta. Then I figured out how I could reduce the fat from the cheese sauce by using Greek yogurt and less cheese. Next, I started adding veggies to it – sautéed onion and steamed pureed cauliflower. Then I boosted the protein by adding trimmed ham leftover from a special occasion and stored in the freezer. My cooking evolved. It developed over years as I became more curious and confident.
The key is not to get locked in with how you ate in the past or even how your friends eat. Just be adventurous and go with the flavors and foods you enjoy. You don’t have to use recipes, they can be like shackles if you lack an ingredient that’s listed, and it could deter you from developing the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Go with the flavors and combinations you think would be fun.
A meal should be simple enough to keep you healthy, and tasty enough to make you happy.
You can create fast, tasty meals with fresh quality ingredients that will not only be healthier for you but they will save you time and money instead of eating out. Make it a family or couple event.
And, heck, instead of going out with your friends for dinner, create “theme nights” and ask everyone to bring a dish. Save money, get creative and notice the pleasure on your friends faces. Home cooking is a personal expression that shows caring and thoughtfulness. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it will be appreciated.