Americans still aren’t cooking much from scratch

Despite the pandemic, takeout orders have risen. It's time to reclaim lost skills.

I've been thinking about takeout lately, and the fact that despite most people being stuck at home with nowhere to go, the number of takeout food orders has actually increased in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what the Huffington Post says about it:

“As the weeks pass, more Americans are picking up food at restaurants, according to Gallup polling. The market research firm CivicScience finds consumers reporting more use of food delivery since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the online ordering platform GrubHub reported 20 percent more daily orders in April than in the same month last year.”

This is surprising because it goes against the logical assumption that more time at home would mean more time spent cooking meals from scratch. Indeed, the Huffington Post article offers a lengthy history of takeout food and explains that it didn't catch on among American families until the last decade or so of the 20th century, when having a jam-packed schedule – or living a “treadmill existence,” as cultural history professor Andrew Haley calls it – led people to embrace takeout food. (It was already popular among single people and childless couples.) Haley explained,

“To have that middle-class life, where you could afford takeout, you had to have both people working — so you needed takeout. And as the things we do with our children have increased exponentially, that has just added to the pressure to opt for a quicker and easier dinner option.”

But now, much of that frenzy has ceased. There are no more extracurricular activities for the kids, no scrambling to pack school lunches, no rushing out the door for multiple daily drop-offs and pick-ups. Most parents are working from home, commutes have been eliminated, kids are studying at home, leaving the house is a hassle, and we've suddenly got the time to cook that we dreamed of having in the past. So why isn't it happening?

I think it's because Americans simply do not know how to cook anymore. Through lack of practice, they've lost the skills required to transform raw ingredients using heat into something delicious. A survey conducted in 2019 by oven manufacturer June found that a mere 20 percent of Americans cook daily. The rest? Presumably they're eating takeout, dining out (when times were more normal), or grazing on snack foods all day long. There is no doubt that a huge cultural shift has occurred in recent decades: “Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they grew up eating dinner at the table, while today fewer than half do; almost a third take most of their meals on the couch.”

I would've expected a reversal of this in light of the coronavirus and the tighter food budgets, limited grocery supplies, and extra time we're all dealing with, but apparently not. Americans continue to order in, even when they could be relearning what's arguably the most useful skill a person can have.

Cook90 can help.

Perhaps they just don't know where to start. That's why I'd like to tell readers about Cook90, which is a great program designed by David Tamarkin, editor at Epicurious, for kickstarting one's home-cooking abilities and routine. This is something I've wanted to mention for a while on Treehugger, but it didn't seem relevant during the pandemic. Upon discovering that so few people continue to cook, however, it could be helpful.

Cook90 book© K Martinko – The library copy of Cook90 that I've been enjoying throughout the pandemic

Cook90 is a month-long challenge during which participants are required to cook every meal they eat, with only three exceptions allowed. January is the month that's typically recommended for the challenge, as it's quieter and calmer than most, but any month of pandemic life would be appropriate. You're less likely to be tempted by dinner party invitations and patio hangouts because they're just not happening.

The Cook90 rules, which are written up in a cookbook by the same name by David Tamarkin (there's an abbreviated version in this article), state that you cannot make the same thing twice. Breakfast is an exception, and you are allowed to work leftovers into new meals.

“That's right, you can't make cacio e pepe night after night (though that does sound sort of nice). Forcing yourself to cook new recipes is exactly the thing that will earn you new skills, new favorites to put in your repertoire — and maybe even some new accolades from your family.”

Cooking is one of those things that you can only learn by doing. Repetition creates familiarity and confidence. It teaches you which ingredients pair well, which flavors you like, and what's fast and easy to make. Cook90 holds people accountable for 30 days, which is long enough to establish new habits and make cooking a comfortable part of your life.

If you accomplish only one thing during the pandemic, make it learning how to cook your own meals. It's a skill that will stay with you forever, while improving the quality of your life. You'll save money, improve your health, and fight back against the wave of single-use plastic packaging that's accompanying the rise in takeout orders. So, why not start cooking today? The month is almost over, a new one is set to begin, so this is your chance to make every meal you eat in June from scratch.

Despite the pandemic, takeout orders have risen. It's time to reclaim lost skills.