Despite all the cookbooks we write and all the encouraging we food writers do –online and off — to get people to cook, Americans are heading to the kitchen less often, and cooking less.
And I’m not alone in that belief. No less than The Washing Post has described as “The slow death of the home-cooked meal.”
Here are four trends that show Americans are cooking less:
- There’s now more eating out than cooking in. Last year was “the first year on record that Americans spent more on eating out than on buying groceries, according to the Department of Commerce,” said a tiny piece in California magazine. Packaged meals are the new focus. There’s even a new term called “grocerants.”
- People are buying cookbooks for other reasons than cooking. They might aspire to cook from them, but then don’t. They might think cookbooks are beautiful enough to display as art. These reasons were clear in my examination of reviews and coverage of my own cookbook last year. It is now acceptable, in major publications and online, to recommend a cookbook without cooking from it.
- The bestselling cookbooks are personality driven, not recipe driven. Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman is last year’s queen, selling 782, 186 copies of her three books, according to Publishers Weekly. She sold more than three times as many copies of her books as Thug Kitchen and Ina Garten, who are also personalities.
- Snacks are becoming more important than meals. Yet most cookbooks are focused on meals.
What does this mean for cookbook publishers? They don’t seem concerned. Cookbooks still sell well. As cookbook authors, do we not care if our readers ever make a recipe, as long they buy the book?
What can we do to make readers want to cook more? Do cookbooks need to change, fundamentally?
(Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)
the gold digger says
I think some people just don’t know how much better most home-cooked food tastes. Even my husband, whose mom stayed at home and did some cooking, thinks Oreos are good cookies. My mom never bought cookies at the store – she always made them from scratch. (Some ideology, mostly finances.)
I have a really hard time paying for someone to cook my food when I know I can make good food at home and use the money I save on purses and shoes. 🙂
This is a good attitude for a money saver, but apparently most Americans are not saving much money and haven’t for years. Maybe this is part of the problem? They don’t feel compelled to cook because they don’t save?
Cookbook recipes serve 4-6 or 8-10. I cook for 1-2. If I make one of those giant recipes, I’ll end up tossing half. I love cooking, but I’m not a fan of long division.
I have a cookbook coming out at the end of the year and I have several recipes for 2 only because they were recipes that I developed for just my husband and I once our sons left home. I decided not to change them for the book and I’m wondering if my editor will ask me to. Some recipes are for 2, some for 4, some for 6, and some for 8. No rhyme or reason except that is just the way I cook.
I wonder if it will look to the reader as if there is no rhyme or reason also — good question. Mona is right, though — we have standardized on 4-6 as the common serving in recipes, which isn’t right for everyone — unless they like leftovers! I’m in that category.
I guess you’re oneof those people who buy those cookbooks aimed at “cooking for two” or even one, Mona. There’s lots of them, though I agree that they are not the norm.
Most recipe books are difficult/complex for everyday cooks. I cook daily and I rarely follow a recipe. I use my recipe books as reference for flavor combination and cooking method/time. I basically skip over any recipes over 6 ingredients unless it’s a special occasion. It’s also too expensive to cook following recipes. I can easily spend $25 gathering all the ingredients required in a recipe when I can throw some veggies and proteins I have on hand together by stir-frying, slow cooking or pressure cooking for probably less than $5 and then make some rice to go with it.
True, I agree. I look at them mainly out of interest and rarely cook the difficult recipes, since I am also an everyday cook. You also mention $$, like a previous commenter. Cooking is definitely a good way to save money, but Americans are not interested right now. Saving is at an all-time low — of course the interest rates don’t help.
A very thought-provoking post, Dianne. I, too, am working on a cookbook, and am inspired now to reconsider its focus a bit more. Thanks for the topic! Connie
Wow, really Connie? I’d love to know what you’re going to change as a result of this post.
A lot of people assume cooking is difficult and takes a long time to master. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t have basic skills, so on some level, that can be true for them. Some people are fazed by chopping an onion, or stop reading a recipe because they don’t know the difference between mincing and chopping. Maybe recipes need to be explained in more detail; most assume a certain level of knowledge that many people don’t possess. For example, let’s say a recipe calls for “1 tablespoon of oil.” Someone reaches for the oil — should they use vegetable, olive, sunflower, or something else? Experienced cooks know the answer, but more novice ones don’t.
All true. However the problem with explaining more is that the recipe gets longer and longer, and that intimidates people too! There’s no easy answer to these issues, it seems.
As an editor, an empty-nester, and everyday cook, I would love to see more cookbooks or cooking blog posts emphasizing recipes for 1-2 servings. There are a lot of people in my generation (Baby-Boomer) who like a challenge, like to cook, and are fairly adventurous in our food choices.
I say bring on new cookbooks that cater to 1-2 serving recipes, and cookbooks that show basic skills in ways that don’t talk down to the new cook. Maybe the latter types can be digital, more detailed than You Tube shorts, use a theme around a type of cooking, and encourage newbies to try and to learn. Or maybe these are already out there, and I just don’t know about them. I hope so.
I’m so glad I taught my kids to cook at an early age. They are now everyday cooks and enjoy it.
Thanks, as always, Dianne, for bringing up thoughtful topics.
Hey Polly, there are cookbooks for 1 or 2, if you want those. Maybe some of the cookbooks with serving sizes for 2 assume you’re making a romantic dinner, though!
Re new ways to communicate, at least now you can look up a short video on how to cook just about anything, such as chopping an onion, whisking cream or making a caramel sauce. But videos don’t help cookbook sales, I imagine.
I often have recipes for 1-2 servings on my blog (and on my new eCookbook) for that reason, because not everyone has kids. 🙂
Megan Myers says
The people I know who eat out all the time (and I live in Austin, where we spend the most money in the country on dining out) either don’t have mortgages, or children, or both. I can understand the temptation to spend that money on the new and exciting restaurants popping up every week rather than attempting cooking, especially if you don’t keep a stocked pantry anyway.
I buy cookbooks both for inspiration and to cook from, and I started being interested in cooking when I was about 10, but I do think I’m also one of the last age groups to have had a “home ec” requirement in school. (I’m 36 now.) It’s not like we made anything complicated in that class, but learning how to make scrambled eggs, pancakes, pasta, etc, and chopping ingredients were good building blocks for people who were going to head out into the world soon.
Now that typically both parents work, there isn’t often someone to be there to teach the kids how to do these life skills, and that can end up compounding as they get older. My parents rarely cooked from a book – and we only had one, a well-stained copy of the 1978 Betty Crocker Cookbook.
This was a long-winded comment to basically say that I don’t think cookbooks need to change, but we need to focus on less aspirational content (in books and online) and more practical.
Tell that to Ten Speed et al who are focusing on aspirational and lifestyle cookbooks. Maybe these types of books are good for non-cooks because there’s an acknowledgement that you actually aren’t as rich or beautiful etc. or as amibitious of a cook. So no one expects you to make the recipes? Hah.
Maybe publishers assume all the practical cookbooks have been written, so now we’re down to these more obscure types of cookbooks? Or maybe cookbooks are just a form of entertainment now, not meant to be cooked from. Boy, tell that to all the recipe developers who kill themselves trying to write a recipe that works.
Megan Myers says
I think the number of recipe failures I and my friends have had from some of those more aspirational cookbooks definitely show they’re not always expected to be cooked from.
There are plenty of GREAT cookbooks out there, and I seek those out, but it’s disappointing to see the ever-growing number of cookbooks that feature the beautiful author and their surroundings more than the food.
Yep, those are called lifestyle or aspirational cookbooks. Big big trend and not helping our cause!
Such an interesting post Dianne. Disconcerting news for those of us writing books with recipes and cookbooks. I find it quite sad. I realize how busy people are today, yet eating out constantly is not only expensive but not healthy, and we all know that America is not healthy from the reports and statistics. Cooking at home is certainly more cost effective and healthier.
Recently I was talking with a friend who is a real master chef and top industry food designer. I said I thought people were lazy. He said they were overwhelmed with life and busy schedules. While I can see that, I think many people are also lazy and frankly never learned to cook even the most simple things. While I can get a healthy delicious meal on the table on 20-30 minutes, most people don’t know how to.
No matter the reports, those of us who love to cook and want to help others will still keep trying as long as publishers keep publishing. Disheartening but good food for thought.Thanks.
I don’t think people are lazy. I’m with the chef who thinks people are overwhelmed and stressed. Plus it is easier than ever to get a frozen pizza or ready-to-eat food from the grocery store, and it seems like there’s a restaurant of some kind on every block. So, lots of temptation.
Fascinating article. I knew cookbook sales were at least level because they keep publishing them but it never occurred to me that people were buying them for reasons other than to cook the dishes that they contain. I remember thinking that cookbook sales would eventually decline considering the millions of free recipes on the internet, so this may explain, in part, for their sustained success.
I tend to agree with Sally. Cooking at home is becoming a lost art because society doesn’t allow for it. After working a ten hour day, dealing with kids, etc. who’s got the energy to go home and learn how to prepare an edible piece of chicken?
It’s funny because many of us who do cook have bought cookbooks and not made any of the recipes either. Now it seems like a mainstream thing — a kind of cultural shift. We can just enjoy the book itself and then put it on a shelf.
Re time, yes, people are very busy and exhausted, it seems, so that must have some bearing.
Alisa Fleming says
Funny, I was just reading some posts on 2017 food trends, and they are saying that Gen Z is leading a movement for more home cooking. Let’s hope so! I think it may be partially economic driven, too. I was reading about spending habits since the first tech boom and how people have had more expendable income for dining out. If we see the economic cycle downturn, as predicted, we may see that shift back, at least a bit.
Well, that’s good news, Alisa! I do think there are lots of kinds of cooking that people do — the person who spends a weekend curing bacon but doesn’t cook during the week, for example, or the one who only cooks when entertaining. But the day in, day out cooking seems to be going the way of the dodo.
With the upturn in the economy, it makes sense that people are eating out more. They could also be buying more expensive items to cook, I suppose. I wonder who tracks that kind of thing?
A very interesting article Diane. I often wondered the same thing, if home cooking is becoming a lost art. I am retired, and a few years ago I started my own blog about Greek cooking. I was hoping that I will get enough followers to help me publish a cook book. What I have heard though from people who are retired and my age group (I am also a baby boomer) that they don’t cook at home, it’s too much work. They’d rather go buy something ready or something already made and just pop it in the oven. I worked full time and cooked during the weekends and prepared foods for during the week for a family of four (I also have two daughters married now). I still had the time to go out with friends on a Saturday night, still worked 60 hours a week, both my husband and I, still had the time to cook do the groceries and clean the house I might add. I think the newer generation just doesn’t want to be bothered with cooking. What flabbergasts me the most is when I hear people my own age who are retired and don’t want to cook. My thought to them is “what are you doing the whole day”? Not that cooking takes a lot of your time. Unless you decide to make a complicated meal, then yes. But I only spend an hour to two most on a meal. And for those who want to cook for just two people, you can have leftovers the next day and that gives you a free day from cooking. Not to put down any of the people who commented here and want recipes for 1-2 people. I am too a two person cook, for my husband and myself. Sometimes I will cook a bit more so that I won’t have to cook the next day. Or if I make any extra, since I’m babysitting my granddaughter, I give some extra food to my daughter for dinner when she picks up the baby. With that said, I think people mostly think that it’s beneath them to cook. At least that’s what I got from the age group that I have encountered. I taught both my daughters to cook and both of them are married, work full time and they are able to make a decent meal for their families. I also continue to cook every day and bake, and even though my granddaughter is only one year old, I am teaching heer from this young age about cooking a healthy meal. I do believe as some people said above that eating a home cooked meal is a lot healthier than eating out. And a lot better in the pocket. I can go on and on about this subject. But I will stop. Thank you for listening/reading my rant (in a way). And by the way, I really enjoy your articles Diane and also all the comments that I read on your posts. Keep up the good work.
Leticia Moreinos Schwartz says
I imagine that most of the people who follow Dianne’s wonderful site/ blog— are from the industry, like my self, and like all of the people who commented above—food bloggers, authors, and publishers. I think it’s hard for us accept this reality because we all cook and we cook professionally, even when you say ” I am an everyday cook”. If you are a food writer, like most of us here, we are the industry. So it’s very sad to read that people are cooking less at home. But on the other hand, I try to put myself on the other side. There are times that I come from a 10-hour work day (working as a food stylist, of all things) and I just don’t have the strength to do the cooking at home ( we are 4 in my family). Those are the days that I can understand how most people feel about cooking. And then remember, it’s not just cooking: it’s shopping for the ingredients, then cooking, and then cleaning up! It’s a lot! When I am not food styling, I cook every day for my family… I also wrote 2 cookbooks and I am hoping to work on my next one. I wish we could all come to a conclusion, but reading this very interesting article and the comments, at least brings a light. All I can say at the moment is cheers to us, who continue to cook at home! And cheers to more cookbooks! And cheers to health that comes from home cooking! And finally, cheers to Dianne!
Yes, we can’t understand why people don’t cook more, because it is so easy for us. It’s a problem, I agree, Leticia. But how to solve it? Rght now convenience foods and restaurants are winning out because people don’t have time. I don’t have the answer either. But I appreciate this long comment.
Silver Screen Suppers says
I live alone and when I discovered Delia Smith’s “One is Fun” cookbook I thought I had gone to heaven! I work full time, and cook for myself a couple of evenings a week, and a lot for friends at weekends. But this is because I LOVE to cook. I find it to be the ultimate relaxation after work and I love to entertain.
I partly lay the blame for people getting lazier about cooking, at the gogglebox (as we call it here in the UK). I haven’t had a television for over 20 years and it frees up so much of my time to do other things….
It’s difficult for those of us who love to cook to understand that not everyone enjoys it. My best friend (a very intelligent woman in all other parts of life) just doesn’t like cooking. I can’t believe it, but it is true!
She loves to sew though. Each to their own maybe?
Good to know about a “cookbook for one” you like, Jenny. Yes, we can’t force people to cook for themselves. A friend of mine who is the same age has recently come around. She has progressed from heating up Trader Joe’s entrees to cooking 4 porkchops at a time, once a week, so she’ll have leftovers once. It’s progress.
Rick Rodgers says
Blue Apron, the huge meal kit company, is branding itself as Gen Z’s Betty Crocker or JOY OF COOKING, an instantly recognizable brand that speaks to their audience. Meal kits are the wave of the future because people, especially young people, don’t have the time to look for a delicious recipe, shop, prep, cook, cleanup, and do their extra job-related work (or their kid’s homework) before 10 PM five nights a week. My point really is that Blue Apron totally gets the comfort value of a big, thick hard cover book in the kitchen, and they choose to go that route to support their brand. Sure, they have digital content, but believe me, their marketing studies show that cookbooks aren’t going anywhere, or they would not sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into their book project.
Yes, good point about these meal kits, Rick. Have you tried them? I’ve heard that their recipes are not that easy — that there’s lots of prep and lots of cleanup, which kind of defeats the point. But on the other hand, Blue Apron wants their meals to taste as good as restaurant food, I’m sure. I also think there’s entertainment value in these meal kits — that it’s “something different” to try instead of opening a cookbook after going to a grocery store.