When I first started out in college, as a nutrition major, I was mostly interested in the nutrients and microbiology of nutrition. I cooked every so often, boiling pasta and using jarred marinara or making a tuna and mayo salad, but nothing too intense as I was a college student with little money.
But I’ve enjoyed cooking my whole life, however, and I remember being a little kid helping my mom sautee mushrooms on a stool in the kitchen or making chocolate chip cookies from scratch.
As I entered my dietetic internship, I noticed a shift in my passion for nutrition. I moved away from an interest in the microbiology and chemistry of nutrition and found an intense love for cooking. I started this blog and began experimenting with new foods and cooking techniques in my parent’s kitchen and definitely found my passion.
As I started working with clients and patients, I noticed a pattern right away.
“I don’t cook.” they’d say.
Those three words have been spoken to me so many times in the four years since I started my internship, I couldn’t even count them.
Wait. You don’t cook?
This was my initial reaction the first few times. How can you not cook? With my intense love of cooking, it was hard to relate to those who wouldn’t even listen to my nutrition advice because they immediately shut down any suggestions from me that they start to eat more at home instead of eating out at restaurants all the time.
“We’re just two people, no kids”.
“I’m a single guy.”
“I don’t have the time.”
First of all, why do we have to stop cooking when the kids leave the house? Who said that you have to have a wife to cook? If you don’t have time to cook yet you have time to have major health issues, perhaps a hospital stay, and keep up with a ton of medications, then your priorities are probably not in the right place. Harsh, yet true.
Of course I would never say these things directly to a patient. And that’s why most of my counseling sessions revolve around encouraging the patient to start cooking more at home. But you can see where my frustration would be with this, when most of our country’s healthcare costs are from preventable diseases.
Michael Pollan, a world-renowned author and whole foods enthusiast, argues that cooking is the simplest and most important step we can take to improve our health, build communities, fix our broken food system and break our dependence on corporations.
I stumbled across this amazing podcast from a talk Pollan gave a few years ago. It’s 20 minutes long, and if you have time I highly recommend you watch it:
In the podcast, Pollan argues that 70 years ago, there were no books about where our food came from. Everyone already knew where our food came from. During his research, he found that the most influential part of the food chain in the middle– where the food is transformed. The kind of agriculture we have is a function of the cooking we’re doing.
I learned that what mattered most about one’s health was not necessarily the nutrients, good or bad, that people were consuming, or even staying away from, or calorie counting… but what predicted a healthy diet is the fact that it was being cooked by a human being and not a corporation.
Food companies and corporations cook very differently than we do. Using large amounts of salt, fat, sugar, preservatives, chemicals than you would ever use in your own cooking. These ingredients are so attractive because they’re addictive and incredibly cheap.
Home cooking has drastically declined since the 1960’s– by half– as processed food became more prominent. Pollan says the average American spends 27 minutes cooking each day, with 4 minutes cleaning up. Wait, only 4 minutes? That one made me laugh out loud. Who spends 4 minutes cleaning up dinner? He jokes that it’s enough time to crumple up a pizza box. I know that when I make a home cooked dinner, I’m spending at least 15 minutes cleaning the kitchen. Our definition of cooking may be rather diluted.
Poor women who cook have healthier diets than wealthier women who don’t.
While rates of home cooking decline, rates of obesity go up. Countries with more home cooking have lower rates of obesity. Our society turns cooking into this fancy, unattainable task. Shows like Chopped or Top Chef, while entertaining, are creating these works of food art while the clocks tick down, and Americans think this is the way cooking should be. Restaurant quality every time.
The best way to encourage people to cook was to remind them what a beautiful, miraculous, work it is. Practice, it is. And that we have been, I would argue, brainwashed, to think of cooking as drudgery. Something we don’t have time for. Or something we don’t have the skills for.
I loved the story Pollan told about how home cooking has declined so quickly. After World War 2, women entered the work force, and especially in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a real problem with dividing the household labor. Women didn’t want to work and also be solely in charge of cooking and maintaining the household. Food companies jumped in with “progressive” campaigns, like KFC fried chicken for example, who had a billboard that proclaimed a “Women’s Liberation” by a bucket of fried chicken. This solved the problem of who was cooking dinner every day, and both men and women hopped on board.
You don’t have time to cook. You’re too important. This is how marketing works. You create an anxiety and then you create a solution.
Food corporations and fast food restaurants have turned what should be labor-intensive foods, such as the French Fries mentioned in the podcast, become easy. French fries take an incredible amount of work– washing, peeling, slicing, frying, cleaning up the oil. Corporations have made it easy for us and what should be special occasion foods have become everyday foods.
Let’s veer to the side of Pollan’s podcast and think about one more thing. There are so many things we can’t control in life. We can’t control the weather or a car accident or any other unfortunate events. But ONE thing we do have control over in our lives (for the most part) is our health. Heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer can be prevented simply by taking care of ourselves.
Cooking is just a form of taking care of ourselves. It is a form of self-respect. Treating your body the way it should be treated. Self-respect is such a fundamental part of being a human and when we don’t treat our body well, it’s usually a sign of an underlying issue such as depression, anxiety, or other serious issues like being overworked, fatigued, and drained by modern society. Being depressed or anxious is NOT your fault and should never be considered as such.
Keeping your body healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos — the trees, the clouds, everything. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Cooking is just ONE of a few things that you HAVE control over, that you can do to take that step in a healthier direction. You have a right to be happy and healthy, and cooking can take you there. We can learn to deal with potential roadblocks to cooking: low income, skills, busyness. These are not excuses, nor the fault of those having to deal with them, but should be looked at as an area of opportunity to educate, learn and grow.
Cooking connects each and every one of us. There is a dense web of relationships with humans, plants, animals, the soil, farmers. I get so passionate about this subject, and the benefits the world could reap if we all just cooked at home more often, that it makes me choke up just thinking about it. It could just be that I’m listening to the “Peaceful Piano” soundtrack on Spotify as I write this but I maybe it’s just something that really touches me.
My parents cooked for us when we were children. We had a home cooked meal almost every night. We were very lucky to have parents who did this for us. While occasionally they used pre-made products, most was fruits and veggies and healthful foods. We ate out at restaurants only every so often. Holidays were (and still are) spent in our mom’s or grandma’s kitchen, whipping up various dishes and bonding. Someone’s birthday? Okay, what are we cooking?
So when people tell me bluntly: “I don’t cook.” It genuinely makes me very sad. They are missing out on such a joy, an art, an act of mindfulness, a way of nourishing their bodies and their family’s bodies. A tradition. An act of self care. An expression of gratitude for the body we have for the short time on this earth.