According to a survey by the United States Department of Energy, between 1993 and 2001 the percentage of American households who report cooking two or more times a day or even once a day dropped substantially. Americans are cooking less at home. Though cooks in larger households are still more likely to cook hot meals at home, the drop in home cooking frequency can be seen in households of all sizes. Americans find that in their world of multitasking and daily time crisis, food preparation at home becomes more of a chore, less of a pleasure. Single people often cannot justify the fuss and bother of food preparation when they can just as easily throw a prepared meal, often one of high quality, into the microwave oven. Larger families opt for restaurant or take-out eating because family members have conflicting schedules, tastes, or dietary needs. Two-income families often simply do not have the time for menu planning, food shopping, ingredient preparation, cooking and eventual clean-up.
Ironically, the decline in home cooking has occurred at the same time the nation has experienced an explosion in interest in cooking fueled by food and lifestyle television programs, celebrity chefs, cookbooks, cooking classes, and culinary magazines. Magazines and television programs feature “dream” kitchen renovations, while fancy catalogs sell thousand-dollar sets of knives and equally expensive sets of cookware. Among families that can afford it, the dream kitchen may go unused, while the family dines in a restaurant, all the while expressing a level of food knowledge and sensitivity they’ve garnered from hours spent viewing “home cooking” television shows. The kitchen in such a case may find its best use for snack and sandwich preparation, for reheating meals prepared outside the home, for occasional holiday or social entertaining.
The trend belies the deep emotional role the concept of “home cooking” plays in the American cultural psyche. The idea connotes family, warmth, togetherness, and love. Home cooking also connotes the notion of cultural continuity (in the population in general and among many ethnic groups that strive to uphold their traditions). Many Americans interested in food will readily admit they wished they got around to cooking more at home. Home cooking stays alive deep in their hearts.
An interesting commercial trend has arisen at the turn of the twenty-first century that meets some of the needs of those who wish they could cook more at home but “haven’t got the time” to do all the shopping and preparation required to cook quality meals. Going by various descriptive names, “assemble-your-own-dinner” centers are springing up all over the country that allow cooks to do advance meal preparation for their families, avoiding both the shopping and the prep clean-up. Following recipes and guidance from the center, the cook will prepare, for example, the makings of a week’s worth of meals in one session, pay a fee, and take the prepped meals back home for freezing or refrigeration before preparing them later. The cook saves shopping time, benefits from the center’s expertise, and avoids the costs and nutritional issues of restaurant dining. The family eats at home together.
Some of the companies are franchised operations with dozens of stores in many states, while others are run independently. Major multi-unit operations have such evocative names as Super Suppers, Dream Dinners, Dinner By Design, Dinner My Way, Dinners Done Right, Dinners Ready, Let’s Dish!, Pass Your Plate, and Supper Solutions.