About a year ago, my wife and I were trying to find ways to trim our budget. Grocery shopping is one of the only wildly variable monthly expenses we have, and we figured that a more disciplined approach to our food could cut our budget by maybe a fifth. We started letting the cheap produce dictate what we cooked, rather than going to the store recipe-in-hand. We also started buying store brand, and, perhaps because I’d internalized the criticism of my generation’s obsession with avocado toast, I decided I was going to start making some of our “luxury” food items from scratch, rather than buying pre-made.
One of our more expensive regular items was hummus. You could get maybe two cups of it for $6, and we’d burn through that quickly. So I decided to start making it from scratch. At first glance, this didn’t save me a lot of money, and it also takes an insane amount of time to prepare – you have to peel the skin off of every single chickpea, and gently toast the sesame seeds before grinding them into the tahini paste – but I discovered some hidden benefits that outweighed the extra work, and I haven’t bought a prepackaged container of hummus since.
Why we stopped making things by hand
A lot of the 21st century modern conveniences that we take for granted – dishwashers, blenders, electric stoves, prepackaged foods, supermarkets, etc. – were created initially around the idea of convenience and saving time spent on doing basic housework. Women in particular spent a lot of their day doing mundane chores like cleaning the dishes, washing clothes, and preparing meals, so modern conveniences were somewhat liberative for housewives.
All of the sudden, if you were making something like hummus, you didn’t need to grind it up with a mortar and pestle – you had a blender. All of the sudden, every dish after every meal didn’t need to be washed by hand; it went into the dishwasher. All of the sudden, if you wanted to boil some water, you didn’t have to spend half an hour getting your wood or charcoal stove warm enough. You just flicked on the electric burner. All of the sudden, entire foods were available prepackaged at the grocery store, and half a day didn’t need to be spent in preparation for a minor meal.
In many ways, these innovations were (and remain) a good thing. There is good evidence that modern plug-in conveniences helped to kick-start feminism by getting more women out of the home and into the workforce: in 1900, women spent 58 hours a week on household chores. In 1975, it was down to 18.
But this revolution, like all revolutions, had its unintended side-effects. One of those side-effects is that most Americans have become pretty disconnected from their food. A 2017 study in the Harvard Business Review found that only about 10% of Americans really like cooking, and the end result is that we spend a huge amount of our money eating out, and we end up eating way more sugar and salt than we realize. We also end up going through enormous amounts of packaging each year buying premade foods, and that’s led to the growth of a garbage patch three times the size of France in the Pacific which in turn kills the fish that we love to eat. Our desire for convenience has made us (and our world) much less healthy than we were before.
How cooking food from scratch is good for you (and the world)
If we chose to carve out a larger portion of our days towards food preparation, we could do ourselves and our planet a lot of good. There are a few reasons for this.
First and foremost is health. Americans today eat way too much “ultra-processed” foods. A lot of the foods we eat have sweeteners, coloring, artificial flavoring, emulsifiers (to improve texture), preservatives, and so on, added to them. Most of us don’t take the time to read the ingredients on the side of these packages, and if we do, we likely aren’t familiar with half of the ingredients in them. Chemicals themselves aren’t inherently bad (“citric acid” sounds menacing, for example, but it’s just lemon juice), but not knowing what’s gone into your food means you don’t know what’s going into your body.
When you make something like hummus from scratch, you are the one putting all of the ingredients into it. You see how much olive oil you put in. You see how much salt goes in. You don’t add extra flavoring. You don’t add preservatives. You might make healthier substitutions. You may add fresher ingredients than you’d get out of something prepackaged. You have the option, in short, to make something healthier than what they made at the factory. There’s science behind this: adults who cook from home more often eat 320 calories less per day than those that eat out, according to a study by Public Health Nutrition.
The second benefit of making your food from scratch is that it can be more sustainable. It takes twice as much energy to process, package and transport food than it does to actually produce it. Buying in bulk and buying fresh both reduce packaging significantly. And depending on what you’re making, you can buy more of the ingredients from local farms, which is, generally speaking, better for the environment and for your community. Most importantly, cooking from scratch puts you more in touch with your food, and allows you to make more sustainable decisions. My hummus, tasty as it is, is not local: there aren’t chickpea or sesame seed growers in New Jersey. So while I still make it whenever I can, I have started seeking out alternative veggie dips (like this cucumber-based raita) that I can make with local ingredients.
Finally, it’s cheaper to make things from scratch. By my estimate, I save a couple of dollars every time I make hummus at home. I save a few dollars more when I make homemade bread, and an absolutely insane amount when I make my own pesto (there are like a trillion substitutes that are cheaper than pine nuts, and I can grow basil in my apartment). Then there’s the opportunity cost: I save countless dollars by having a fairly time-consuming hobby that keeps me from going out and spending on other things.
We are (hopefully) never headed back to a world where anyone has to spend 58 hours a week doing household chores. But maybe, now that we have all this free time, we can go back to some of those old chores and take them up as hobbies.