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Is Cooking a Lost Art?

Exploring Americans’ relationship with food and their kitchens. A conversation with Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst of the consumer market research company NPD Group.

POLL: How often do you cook?

With the popularity of movies like Julie & Julia and books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it seems like seeking out good food and cooking it are the norm. At EatingWell, we like to think that all Americans are as jazzed as we are about cooking and eating healthfully, but we know we’re a little biased, so we checked in with Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst of the consumer market research company NPD Group.

Balzer writes “Eating Patterns in America,” an annual report describing the eating habits of Americans, from how often we eat sandwiches (a lot) to how much we cook at home (not as much anymore). With his 25th report on the horizon, we talked to Balzer about what’s fueling Americans’ food choices.

Photo courtesy of the NPD Group.

How does the recent economic downturn factor into our food spending?

Last year 45 percent of people said they were stocking their pantries to save money. This year they’re not going out for dinner.

So we’re cooking more at home?

Actually, we’re eating more at home. If you mean preparing more meals from scratch—no way. We’re finding someone else to do the cooking. Think of your supermarket—there are more prepared meal items now. You’d have a cook if you could, but instead you settle for the 16-year-old at the fast-food place. The number-one restaurant Americans visited in 1977 was McDonald’s. You know what it was yesterday? McDonald’s.

In 1984 we made 72 percent of our dinners from scratch, but by 2008 that number dropped to 57 percent. What will happen with cooking in the future?

Just like there still are people who make quilts, there will be people who will cook. But like what happened in the last 25 years, it’s going to go down. Not in my lifetime, but it’ll eventually go to zero…

What’s been the most revolutionary trend in the past 25 years?

Oh, there’s no question—the microwave oven. It was in 10 percent of houses in 1979 and it’s in 90 percent of homes today.

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