Throw It in the Microwave Oven

Millennials tend to get a bad rap. But in truth they are, pound for pound, really no more or less awful than any other generation, which is to say that they have good habits and bad ones and it’s kind of silly to pretend that they are somehow uniquely terrible rather than just normally terrible. But there is one area in which my generation’s failures are both marked and uniquely concerning, and it is food:

Millennial households devote more of their at-home food spending to prepared foods, such as frozen entrees and instant breakfasts, than the other three generational groups. In addition, the slight negative relationship between income and prepared food purchases for the three oldest generations was absent for Millennials. Millennials’ preference for convenient, prepared foods could be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps, some Millennials may lack cooking skills or interest in cooking. Or, maybe some Millennials prefer to spend their non-work time on activities other than cooking and cleaning up afterwards. In fact, Millennials spend significantly less time on food preparation, presentation, and clean-up. An ERS analysis of 2014 time use data revealed that, on average, this generation spent 88 minutes doing food preparation, presentation, and clean-up—55 minutes less than Gen X’ers who spent the most time at 143 minutes.

Now, it’s worth pointing out part of the reduction in time spent preparing and cleaning food may be attributable to the timesaving advancements of the modern kitchen: surely it is easier to cook more easily in 2018 than it was in 1988. Nonetheless, the overall picture is a bleak one: we are seeing a shift toward “frozen entrees” and “instant breakfasts,” the types of things that are referred to, bloodlessly and unpleasantly, as “prepared foods” (can you imagine a less appetizing genre?). There are more than a few people who think that this shift is a good one, and that we should all embrace our new prepared food overlords: there is a reason that “meal kits,” which are first cousins to “prepared foods,” have become so popular and profitable in recent years. Increasingly, even the people who actually cook still don’t really want to think about it all that much.

This is a poverty, for a great many reasons but chief among them this one: food is a good thing, and like any good thing it is best when it is done well, not poorly or halfheartedly. But to do food well—to be a good cook and to wring the best and most nourishing aspects of food out of the natural and commercial spheres—one must be familiar with food at the most elemental level of which one is practically capable. For some people, a relatively small number, this may mean growing some or most of your own food. For most of us, however, it means buying good-quality whole foods, as fresh and as local as is feasible, and making out of them the things that a great many businessmen would love to make for us. When you buy “prepared foods,” you are saying—for whatever reason—that someone else, a line drone on a corporate culinary assembly line, say, can make that meal better than you can. But that’s not true, and we all of us know it’s not true, instinctively if in no other way. Being a good cook is easy and fun, if you teach yourself how to love and enjoy it.

I don’t know what will come of my generation in this regard, if they’ll come around to cooking or if they’ll drift even further away from it. Maybe a little of both. I don’t think, as some cynics do, that these tendencies mean we will eventually, on a civilizational scale, lose the art of good cooking. That will always be there. The great tragedy, however, is this: there are many, many people who are currently making a great many terrible food choices and who are living poorer and less enjoyable lives because of it. Cooking, eating, even cleaning—it’s all supposed to be fun and enjoyable and deeply gratifying. “Instant breakfasts,” not so much,.

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