I had an interesting and slightly discouraging conversation with my 16-year-old son last night about cooking. Ten years ago, he wanted to be a chef when he grew up. He loved to open jars of spices to learn how each smelled. In one of my very early pieces for Mother Nature Network about slicing onions, I wrote about how my 6-year-old had embraced the title of sous chef in our kitchen.
I wasn't naive enough to believe that at 6 he had it all figured out and was bound for Le Cordon Blue, but I was naive enough to think I had instilled in him a lifelong love of cooking. Last night, he told me that cooking isn't something he's interested in at all. No one cooks anymore. When he's on his own, he says he'll buy all his meals out or use one of those meal delivery services that bring you microwave meals.
I could feel like a total failure about this, or I could realize that I'm not the only person who has influence over him, and the way he feels about cooking is much more common than the way I feel about cooking.
The 10 percent
Fifteen years ago, 15 percent of Americans loved to cook. About 35 percent felt so-so about it — they cooked some of their meals but it wasn't something they loved. A full 50 percent said they hated to cook.
Those numbers have changed. Only 10 percent of Americans now love to cook, according to Harvest Business Review, and those remaining are divided equally between those who feel so-so about it and those who hate it.
How is it, with the rise of everything food over the past 15 years — cooking shows, cooking competition shows, recipe websites, food blogs, people who consider themselves "foodies," our obsession with photographing our meals, home gardening, viral cooking videos, locavorism — that our love of cooking has decreased?
Eddie Yoon, whose two decades of consulting for packaged goods companies created the data used for these statistics, suggests our love affair with amazing food may be setting high standards that Americans don't think they can meet. Instead of trying to recreate meals seen on television, people are choosing to go out get those meals from professionals, contributing to the decline of the cooking habit.
This decline is also a decline in traditional grocery store shopping. Since 2009, the top 25 food and beverage companies have lost billions in market share — $18 billion to be exact. Money that used to be spent on groceries is now going to restaurants (which in turn are making changes like dedicating more space to takeout because so many diners want to eat restaurant food at home).
Is there an answer?
Yoon has advice for the grocery industry on how to move forward and make sweeping changes or risk failure, but my concern is with the people who choose not to cook at all, including my own son. Ten years ago, I thought I had it all figured out. Teach the younger generation to cook, and they'll love to spend time in the kitchen.
Now I know I don't have it figured out, and I'm wondering if anyone knows how to create a love of cooking in Americans.
While I find the data about the decline in home cooking disturbing, I also personally find it a bit comforting considering the conversation I had with my son last night. I haven't failed. Our culture as a whole is moving away from home cooking. Since my son was born, Americans' love of cooking has greatly declined, and that has influenced him.
I do have hope, though, that the skills I've taught my teenager will stick, and someday he'll choose to cook out of a renewed interest or maybe just necessity.