The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Rediscovering Home Cooking

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Nutritionists have long recognized the considerable benefits of home cooking. At least in the United States, however, the number of people enjoying those benefits fell sharply in the late 20th century as a consequence of low marriage rates and high rates of divorce and maternal employment. But evidence of a heartening resurgence in home cooking appears in a study recently published by public-health scholar Lindsey Smith Taillie of the University of North Carolina. 

In investigating recent trends in home cooking, Taillie recognizes what is at stake: Such cooking holds promise as “a key strategy to improve dietary intake and prevent obesity,” in part because it typically means “overall healthier dietary patterns,” including an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables and “lower intakes of ultra-processed food, convenience food, and take-away food.” Given the longstanding and widespread recognition of these benefits, Taillie must account for the fact that “overall [home] cooking levels in the US declined in the second half of the twentieth century and early years of the twenty first century.” She does so by identifying “increased food costs, decreased time availability, and lack of skill” among younger Americans as adverse influences on home cooking. She somehow neglects to mention the potent impact of the feminist assault on the family roles of wives and mothers as homemakers. 

But what Taillie omits in her explanation of the decline of home cooking sneaks into view in her account of its 21st-century renascence. To be sure, in accounting for the upsurge in home cooking between 2003 and 2016, she does not emphasize marital or family roles. Instead, she emphasizes the “the increasing popularity of food-related media such as food-focused television channels,” suggesting that the emergence of “popular celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver have presented cooking as a masculine activity,” so making more intelligible the particularly notable rise during this period in the percentage of men who cook at home (climbing from 35% to 46%).  

Nonetheless, Taillie acknowledges that “women still cook much more than men,” as “strong social norms likely persist around gender and cooking: [with] women and girls [being] more likely to be involved in cooking, feel confident in cooking, and pass down cooking skills to children. . . . [C]ooking skills and mealtime practices in general . . . tend to be transferred from mothers to daughters.” Not surprisingly, then, “a greater percent of women still cooked in 2016 than did men” (70% vs. 46%). 

But it is not just gender roles that determine who cooks at home; marital roles also appear influential. Taillie reports that married individuals are significantly more likely to cook at home than are unmarried peers (p < 0.001). And though American academics have generally celebrated the movement of women out of the home into employment, Taillie adduces evidence that a rising number of American women have been able to bring the benefits of home cooking to their families in recent years precisely because they have disengaged from paid employment. To be sure, the increase in the percentage of women cooking at home in recent years has been modest: 70% in 2016 vs. 67% in 2003. But this increase nonetheless constitutes a notable “reversal of previous trends.” And this reversal seems to correlate with the fact that “women’s labor force participation, which increased in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, has actually fallen by about 3.5 percentage points since 2000.” Taillie plausibly reasons that “less time spent in the labor force could increase time available for home cooking,” as time spent in the labor force “has been well-documented as a major barrier to home food preparation.” Buttressing this line of reasoning, Taillie’s own data manifest a statistically elevated percentage of those who are not in the paid labor force doing home cooking (p = 0.008).  

A troubling number of Americans still live without the benefits of home cooking. But Taillie’s new study kindles hope that the number might be dropping. If more American women rediscover the benefits of homemaking, that number could start dropping even faster.  

(Lindsey Smith Taillie, “Who’s Cooking? Trends in US Home Food Preparation by Gender, Education, and Race/Ethnicity,” Nutrition Journal 17 [2018]: 41, Web.)