Home Cooking: The Nutritional Benefits of Culinary Inefficiency

When 20th-century feminist utopian Charlotte Perkins Gilman looked at home cooking, she saw only a primitive tangle of inefficiencies.  It is far more efficient, she opined, to have professionals prepare meals using modern culinary equipment suitable for quantity production. What Gilman failed to see, however, were the considerable benefits that come with home-cooked family meals. A number of studies have concluded that children, especially adolescents, are much better off psychologically and socially when they regularly eat meals at home with their families.  And now a study recently completed at Tulane University finds that even in relatively impoverished areas, children who regularly consume home-prepared meals are nutritionally well ahead of peers who do not.  

The authors of the new study justify their inquiry into the prevalent dietary patterns in impoverished urban areas in terms of the health consequences of such patterns. Underscoring the role of diets as “important determinants of health,” the researchers focus on “fruit and vegetable (F/V) consumption” as a key antecedent to good health and a proven safeguard against “diseases such as CVD [Cardiovascular Disease], type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and cancer due to their concentration of nutrients including vitamins, folate, potassium, minerals, and dietary fiber.” In contrast, when they lack fruits and vegetables, diets often entail “frequent consumption of food high in calories, fat, salt and sugar.” These fruit-and-vegetable-deficient diets are thus “associated with overweight and obesity, risk factors for developing CVD, diabetes, and hypertension.” Because of the causal links between diet and health, the authors of the new study believe that “understanding the determinants of food consumption” is “crucial to the prevention of chronic diseases.”

To identify the determinants of healthy food consumption, the Tulane scholars examine data collected in 2013 from 901 adult residents of two low-income, predominantly African-American urban neighborhoods in New Orleans. All of those surveyed identified themselves as the primary shopper for their household.

Predictably, the data reveal that those who regularly visit a farmers’ market consume more fresh produce than those who do not. But such consumption depends not just on where residents go when they leave home. It also depends on what they do when they stay home: more particularly, it depends on whether they cook their own meals at home. The researchers calculate that, compared to peers who ate out or brought home food prepared elsewhere, those who prepared food at home consumed 38% more daily servings of fresh produce.  

Given the typical context for home cooking, it is hardly surprising that the data also reveal that “being married or co-habitating . . . [was] inversely associated with consumption of chips, candy and pastries” (Odds Ratio of 0.66). By lumping married and cohabiting couples together, the researchers no doubt obscure at least some of the dietary advantages of wedlock. But those advantages remain visible.  

To interpret their finding that “cooking dinner at home is associated with healthy dietary patterns,” the researchers turn to a number of previous studies on related topics. They cite, for instance, a 2015 study concluding that those “who cooked dinner six to seven times per week consumed less fat and sugar per day compared with those who cooked dinner zero to once per week.” In the same vein, the researchers recognize the harmony between their findings and those of a 2008 study establishing that “children with parents who cook at home have diets higher in consumption of F[ruits]/V[egetables] than other children.”

That many people now forgo the benefits of home cooking does not surprise the Tulane researchers. “In our busy modern society,” they remark, “people spend more time at work or work multiple jobs, making it more difficult to prepare meals at home from scratch than buying pre-prepared food, fast food or box mixes.” The researchers blame the food industry for making it easy to rely on “a range of convenient alternatives to cooking from scratch at home.” Unfortunately, such convenient alternatives—foods such as frozen pizza and factory prepared and canned foods—are often “high in sodium, fat and non-essential nutrients.”

Impelled by the evidence that “cooking at home may be a relatively straightforward way to increase F/V consumption,” the authors of the study urge their colleagues “to investigate barriers to cooking at home . . . [and] to advocate the benefits of cooking at home.”  

No doubt subject—like other academics—to the pressures of political correctness, the authors of the new study skate skittishly around the explosive issue sure to surface as soon as anyone begins seriously advocating the benefits of home cooking. But Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her feminist epigones would surely realize that home cooking does not fit well in the social world they have created by pushing millions of mothers out of the home and into factories and offices. This new study makes it clear that healthy eating depends on reversing their home-emptying labors.

(Jeanette Gustat et al., “Personal Characteristics, Cooking at Home and Shopping Frequency Influence Consumption,” Preventive Medicine Reports 6 [2017]: 104-10.)