Why ‘Just Cook More’ Isn’t the Universal Solution to Healthy Eating

Why 'Just Cook More' Isn't the Universal Solution to Healthy Eating

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Healthy eating is an endlessly complex topic that often gets distilled into sound bites—some short directive that assigns a simple solution to a myriad of problems. For example: Just cook more. These days, home cooking is presented as the holy grail of healthy eating, and the way to meet every dietary ideal we’re supposed to be working toward—whether it’s what we should be eating less of (salt, sugar, calories, processed foods) or what we should be eating more of (vegetables, fiber, whole foods, vitamins and minerals).
Food reformers and celebrity chefs are loudly spreading this as gospel, and it’s rampant in public health messaging and food media. Heck, I’ve written my fair share of very easy weeknight recipes in an effort to encourage apathetic cooks, and I’m guilty of implying that time-saving kitchen appliances like slow-cookers are simple fixes for cooking on a tight schedule.

But really it’s not that simple. A lot is implied and expected in this call for more home cooking. The message is: Cook more from scratch, with mostly unprocessed foods like produce, meat, dairy, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Boxed mac and cheese and white-bread-and-bologna sandwiches don’t cut it. And for many people, this is asking a lot.

To be clear, nutritious home cooking isn’t a bad thing—experts generally agree that eating mostly unprocessed food can lead to better health outcomes, and it’s easier to control what you’re eating if you cook at home. But presenting it as an easy solution or even as a choice that everyone can make isn’t helpful. It might actually be harmful.

The message to cook more from scratch comes from a place of socio-economic privilege. “People who make these kinds of recommendations often underestimate and overlook the privilege they have,” Melissa Carmona, M.S., a clinical mental health counselor who works primarily with immigrant communities, tells SELF. “When my clients see doctors or other health-care professionals, they’re often hit with, ‘You should cook more, eat better, change your lifestyle in order to improve your health.’ I heard the same thing when I moved to the U.S. from Colombia as a teenager.” But she says the reality of actually doing it wasn’t easy. She couldn’t necessarily afford the foods that were being recommended, and she also found that many of the cultural foods she was used to eating weren’t included in the Americanized picture of healthy eating and home cooking.

I’ve been writing about food for seven years and I feel comfortable saying that extolling the virtues of healthy home cooking is a staple in the repertoire of a great many Instagram influencers who are white and if the rest of their feed is any indication relatively well off. This creates an unrealistic and culturally narrow expectation for what acceptable healthy home cooking looks like. It ultimately makes home cooking a status symbol, Tamara Melton, M.S., R.D. a registered dietitian and cofounder of Diversify Dietetics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the dietetics profession, tells SELF.

“People are already confused about what healthy eating is, and now a lot of people think it’s about re-creating all of the beautiful, trendy food they see on Instagram.” A lot of this food is very whitewashed, Melton says. It’s also expensive and often made by food professionals and influencers who are paid to cook and photograph it.

Of course not everyone feels pressure to eat the way they see people doing it on Instagram. But even a less Instagrammable home-cooked meal isn’t as attainable as mass media makes it out to be.

Cooking from scratch also isn’t in fact budget-friendly for everyone or more affordable than how they’re already eating. One of the selling points of healthy home cooking is based on a tremendous paradox—the idea that cooking at home is the budget-friendly choice. This is true for someone who might start cooking as an alternative to eating out, but not for someone who already does eat most of their meals at home. And, a 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the lowest-income households are spending a larger percentage of their food budget—about two-thirds—on food prepared at home (which includes unprepared foods bought at the grocery store) than the highest-income households—which spend only about half.

But what these lower-income households are cooking may not actually live up to the ideal of a wholesome meal cooked from scratch. In the book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, authors Sarah Bowen, Ph.D., Joslyn Brenton, Ph.D., and Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D., draw on interviews and long-term observational study of several mothers, most of whom are poor or working-class, in order to explain the nuanced challenges of and barriers to healthy home cooking.

“There’s this widespread idea that if you just try a little bit harder or get a little bit more organized, you can be healthy and cook your kids a good meal,” Brenton tells SELF. But, her research proves this wrong. “It doesn’t matter if you know the ‘right’ way to eat or cook—what matters is having the money to do it.” Brenton and her coauthors describe a huge divide “between families…who can afford fresh, seasonal, nutritious fare, and families…who search for the cheapest deals—10 for $10—to keep everyone fed on the smallest possible budget.”

It’s also pretty much impossible to prioritize healthy food and cooking when you’re worried about having enough food. According to a 2016 report from the USDA, one in eight Americans is food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to, “enough food for an active, healthy life.” The USDA has tried to quantify food insecurity by mapping “food deserts,” low-income areas where at least a third of residents live more than a mile from a grocery store. But many experts see this as another oversimplification of a very complicated problem. “Just having a grocery store near you doesn’t mean that you have a way to get there, that you’re going to be able to afford the food there, or that you’ll even want to eat it,” Kathryn De Master, Ph.D., assistant professor of agriculture, society, and environment at the University of California, Berkeley, tells SELF.

Federal food assistance programs like SNAP (food stamps) are designed to help low-income individuals buy food they couldn’t otherwise afford, but these benefits can only go so far. Processed foods are generally cheaper than unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meats. Even with SNAP benefits, cooking with mostly unprocessed foods “requires a huge amount of planning and maneuvering,” De Master says, and in some regions where fresh foods are more expensive, it often isn’t possible at all.

Cooking healthy food also takes time, a luxury that many don’t have. A basic sheet pan dinner of chicken and potatoes will take about an hour from start to finish—but many people, especially shift workers or working parents, likely don’t have this much time to wait. Brenton and her coauthors find that time is an issue for many. “Even middle-class mothers who do have the money to cook healthy meals don’t necessarily have the time,” she says.

It’s true that people spend less time cooking than they used to. A 2013 study in Nutrition Journal found that on average women spent nearly two hours a day in the kitchen in 1965, while a 2018 study in the same journal reports that by 2016 that number had dropped to about an hour a day. But it’s not fair to assume that this is always a choice. “A lot of it has to do with work schedules,” Brenton says. And even time-saving hacks don’t work for everyone. “When you hear advice about how to eat healthy with a busy schedule, you hear things about meal prepping on the weekends” she says. “But what if you work on weekends?” What if you’re taking care of small children and sick parents? What if you’d rather spend what little free time you have doing something other than cook? Assuming that everyone can make time to cook if they choose to just isn’t fair.

There’s no easy solution to these problems, but we need to stop talking about healthy eating like it’s an individual responsibility. “The way we talk about home cooking, we convince people that it’s their responsibility to cook healthy meals for themselves and their families,” Brenton says. “This detracts from the real causes of poor health, like massive economic inequality, racism, long work hours, and stress.” These problems won’t soon be solved, but there are ways to make healthy food more accessible in the meantime. Brenton and her coauthors suggest large-scale solutions such as government subsidies for healthier school lunches, plus paid maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, and affordable child care, all of which would give people more time to prioritize food.

On the community level, things like cooking healthy food in bulk in commercial kitchens and selling it on a sliding scale can help. Melton emphasizes how important it is that community-based solutions actually take each community’s unique needs into account. “It’s important to encourage people to eat in a way that they’re comfortable with, a way that’s culturally relevant to them, with food that they can access,” Melton says. “In low-income communities, teaching cooking skills based on the ingredients and equipment available is very important,” Melton says. “Pay attention to what’s at the local grocery stores and food banks, and teach people to cook with these things.”

Ultimately experts agree that just encouraging everyone to cook healthy food in order to be healthier isn’t very helpful. Instead of promoting a lofty ideal of home cooking, we need to first and foremost find ways to make healthy eating accessible to more people.

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