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Cooking is not the “simple solution” Mark Bittman claims


place settingFor all the wisdom columnist and author Mark Bittman has imparted over the years – including cogent arguments regarding public policy and against eating too much sugar and meat, plus books full of beloved recipes – sometimes it is unfortunately apparent that he hasn’t spent enough time studying people’s everyday lives and why they make certain decisions – in short, the culture in which people live.

Calls to a few anthropologists might have informed his recent Time magazine cover piece on home cooking, which initially makes the sound, if obvious, argument that people would be healthier if they cooked more.

Then Bittman overreaches, calling home cooking a “simple solution” and suggesting some people don’t do it because they’re “scared or lazy or time-pressed.”

In fact, people do still cook, but not often in the scratch way he endorses. “Modern cooking reflects how people live now, which makes chopping vegetables more of a burden than it used to be,” said Melissa Abbott, Vice President of The Hartman Group’s Retainer Services.

People are hungry for help in the kitchen, and to some extent they are getting it: Bittman and others offer quick, simple recipes. Food companies create a wider range of high-quality, convenient foods. Even online meal delivery services such as Plated and Blue Apron help, bringing prepared ingredients to consumers’ doors as an alternative to the cooked chicken and bagged salad in grocery stores.

The reasons people still fall short in the kitchen are complicated. They’re often embarrassing, shame-inducing and enmeshed in everyday lives that require people to juggle competing priorities. (See this week’s accompanying Hartbeat, “Why people don’t cook.”) Nutritional data and pontificating and Bittman’s “simple solution” will not change that.

It is well established that the richer people are, the healthier they eat. Bittman appears to have forgotten what it’s like for everyone else – the world of consumers working longer hours and finding it harder to pay the bills.

Half are women, who even in these more egalitarian times tend to be the home cooks – which raises questions about Bittman’s nostalgia for the home-cooking past. Yes, people ate healthier food, weighed less and had fewer diet-related diseases when they cooked from scratch. But many more households back then could afford for a woman to stay home and do the shopping and cooking. She had the resources – time, energy, money – to experiment with various dishes and figure out what her family liked. 

“He implicitly idealizes and romanticizes a way of cooking and eating that was possible in an era in which women’s realm was the domestic, and men were the sole breadwinners. We don’t live in that time anymore, and he seems uninterested in the broader structural reasons for why that is or how they shape and limit people’s choices,” said Stas Shectman, a Ph.D. cultural anthropologist and Senior Ethnographic Analyst at The Hartman Group.

It’s not a question of poverty or feminism. It’s a cultural reality that middle-class Americans are working more and making less money. That raises the stakes for home-cooked meals, which a recent study showed disproportionately burden mothers and are often rejected by family members. 

“We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” wrote sociologists from North Carolina State University. 

They also found that mothers very much want to make home-cooked meals, seeing it as “the hallmark of good mothering, stable families and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.” 

So Bittman is preaching to the choir but not fully considering the singers’ resources, despite his mission of encouraging “novices and the time- and cash-strapped to feed themselves.” 

Produce often costs more than processed food, and it spoils more easily. If mothers with kitchens equipped for cooking (another hurdle) do find the time and energy to cook a meal and no one likes it, they are demoralized and might throw it out. Experimenting to find recipes their families like requires extra time and possible food loss – plus bearing the brunt of complaints.

Bittman also misses the point in the fine print. He laments that 25 percent of Americans’ daily calories now come from snacks but ignores that snacking is not inherently unhealthy. In fact, consumers are clamoring for healthier snacks, and 64 percent say they’re turning more often to fruits and vegetables as snacks.

Where does he get the idea that “making food a performance… has had a damaging effect on our relationship to cooking”? The same television shows and celebrity chefs he disdains are likely a reason people no longer buy the same highly processed foods they used to. People now want to eat inspired, high-quality, healthy food so they can enjoy life, walk their dogs, play with their children.

They may not be cooking as much as Bittman would like, but they are demanding fresher, less processed food that’s also affordable and convenient.

Food companies are learning to deliver, because it’s what consumers want and the way to boost flagging margins. It’s happening at Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, even 7-Eleven – places where strapped Americans are far more likely to shop than the farmers markets he mentions. Food makers are learning to create high-quality, healthy foods that taste great and are easy to make; retailers are learning the importance of making higher-quality prepared foods and helping shoppers find the higher-quality food they want.

But there’s a bigger cultural picture to consider. For example, research shows people eat more healthfully when they eat together. The Ellyn Satter Institute, which promotes healthy eating using research-based methods, insists that families put the same food on the table to eat together that they would have eaten separately – junk and all. Eventually, eating together turns them toward healthier choices.

To his credit, Bittman points out where shoppers can find the healthiest food in a grocery store and acknowledges that “frozen produce is still produce; canned tomatoes are still tomatoes.”

With recipes and advice like that, he’s truly helping people who are trapped for time and money. And there is so much more to do.

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FOOD SHOPPING IN AMERICA 2017

As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.

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