It took me until I was 33 to start cooking dinner.
Don’t get me wrong—I was no stranger to the kitchen. I had prepared laborious, extravagant meals before, often using exotic ingredients I’d learned about in magazines. My sisters and I had bonded in the kitchen, spending visits preparing elaborate dishes together for hours. Cooking had been everything the food world told me it could be: a way to engage with a community, to travel without leaving home, to respect the local environment, to look after my own health. I nodded along with the eminences of the food world, convinced that their shared conclusion was the pinnacle of truth: Americans just don’t cook enough, and we desperately need to cook more. Our health, our civility, our culture depend on it!
And yet, even while espousing the ideals of the communal table and cross-cultural exploration, I rarely cooked dinner for myself in my 20s. Where was the fun in that? My sisters and I would groan to ourselves when my stepmother implored us not to cook Christmas dinner. (Her reasoning: It was too much work and we could just get Costco lasagna and be done with it.) But when left to my own devices, I would feed myself almost anything so long as I didn’t have to turn on the stove. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I cooked a meal once a week and otherwise made do with hummus and pita, or cereal, or crackers and cheese and olives. I liked to commune with the foodie writers but not enough to cook every day.
Which brings me to the dirty little secret that I suspect haunts every food writer: When you have no choice but to cook for yourself every single day, no matter what, it is not a fun, gratifying adventure. It is a chore. On many days, it kind of sucks.
I might have gone to my grave denying this fundamental truth if I hadn’t reported a book that had me living and eating off minimum wage (and less). While working at Wal-Mart in Michigan, I stocked up on bulk items, foolishly using middle-class logic (“great unit price!”) instead of working-class smarts (“save enough cash for rent plus small emergencies”). I soon ran out of money and found myself hungry and exhausted, staring down a pantry containing little more than flour, coconut flakes, a few scraggly vegetables, and two frozen chicken thighs. There was nothing about this scene that inspired me to cook. The ingredients were boring. There were no friends bringing over bottles of wine. I had left my glossy food magazines in New York.
But there would be no calling Papa John’s for pizza or stopping at Trader Joe’s for premade lasagna or a selection of fine cheeses; my $8.10 an hour precluded that. I had two choices: consume raw flour and cauliflower, or cook. By dint of my newfound poverty, I had lost the third option—the escape hatch, really—that most middle-class people take for granted: eating without having to cook. Once subjected to the tyranny of necessity, I found that making my meals from scratch wasn’t glamorous at all.
There are many good reasons to cook meals from scratch. Cooking simply at home from whole ingredients is often cheaper, per serving, than heading out to a restaurant—even a fast-food restaurant. Food made at home usually has far less salt and fat than either processed foods or what’s on offer in eateries. And, contrary to popular belief, families don’t save much time by turning to box meals like Hamburger Helper rather than cooking entirely from scratch. Researchers at UCLA found that, whether using processed foods or whole ingredients, American families spend about 52 minutes preparing their dinner every night.