Bestselling food writer Mark Bittman makes the case that eating at home is good for your health, good for your family—and, with the right approach, far easier than you think
Just two generations ago, preparing meals was as much a part of life as eating. Now we’ve given up what is perhaps our best excuse to get together and spend time with the people we love—mealtime—and someone else stands at the stove. We’re either watching cooks on TV like we would a spectator sport or grabbing grub, bagged, and eating it alone and on the go.
The fetishizing of food is everywhere. There are cutthroat competitions and celebrity chefs with TV shows, and both social and mainstream media are stuffed with an endless blur of blogs, demos and crowdsourced reviews. So why in Julia’s name do so many Americans still eat tons of hyperprocessed food, the stuff that is correctly called junk and should really carry warning labels?
It’s not because fresh ingredients are hard to come by. Supermarkets offer more variety than ever, and there are over four times as many farmers’ markets in the U.S. as there were 20 years ago. Nor is it for lack of available information. There are plenty of recipes, how-to videos and cooking classes available to anyone who has a computer, smartphone or television. If anything, the information is overwhelming.
And yet we aren’t cooking. If you eat three squares a day and behave like most Americans (and increasingly, the world is doing just that), you probably get at least a third of your daily calories outside the home. Nearly two-thirds of us grab fast food once a week, and we get almost 25% of our daily calories from snacks. So we’re eating out or taking in, and we don’t sit down—or we do, but we hurry.
Shouldn’t preparing—and consuming—food be a source of comfort, pride, health, well-being, relaxation, sociability? Something that connects us to other humans? Why would we want to outsource this basic task, especially when outsourcing it is so harmful?
For all the hand-wringing about how to fight the obesity epidemic and diet-related maladies like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, there is a fairly simple solution: Do it yourself. Sure, there are challenges to cooking; there are challenges to fixing income inequality too. Our goal should be to make things better, not to accept such a dismal status quo.
When I talk about cooking, something I’ve been doing for the better part of five decades, I’m not talking about creating elaborate dinner parties or three-day science projects. I’m taking about simple, easy, everyday meals. My mission is to encourage novices and the time- and cash-strapped to feed themselves. Which means we need modest, realistic expectations, and we need to teach people to cook food that’s good enough to share with family, friends and, if you must, your Instagram account.
Because not cooking is a big mistake—and it’s one that’s costing us money, good times, control, serenity and, yes, vastly better health.
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.