Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The cost of a meal

I recently read this article about the cost of cooking versus the cost of fast food. The current idea is that cooking costs less than fast food, but in actuality those numbers only take into account the price of labor when it is outsourced (e.g., fast food). When you factor in the potential labor costs for cooking at home, the price more than triples and makes the convenience of fast food seem worth the extra couple bucks.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of introducing the labor costs to home-cooked meals. First off, unless you are a chef, you don't get paid to cook. Secondly, unless you'd otherwise be working every waking minute, you won't be out a portion of your paycheck either. On the other hand, many people do find cooking to be a lot of effort and not a lot of fun, so it may sort of seem like working without getting paid, so it is something to consider.

To that end, the author proposes we place a greater emphasis on the joys of cooking, and I couldn't agree more. I love being able to provide a gift so intimate as nourishment to my friends and family and being able to share that sense of community with them. I also like having total control over the things I put in my body, and I sleep easily knowing so much more about what I ate and where it came from. I like trying new things and seeing if I can make my food even better through little tweaks here and there, and I absolutely love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I've pulled off a truly successful meal. Not enough people know these joys, and it's such a shame.

The problem is, as Michael Pollan also pointed out, nobody really knows how to cook anymore. Who is going to teach us the joys of cooking if no one can cook? Sure, some people know how to cook, but upper-middle-class white people have a bit of an edge over inner-city African-Americans, in that they don't live in food deserts and can afford to take a class or two if they're so inclined.

The author suggested that the public school system take on the task, to which I scoff and say, "Good luck with that!" With the egregious budget cuts the entire education system is taking, there's no way anyone's gonna convince schools to re-instate home economics classes. I was lucky enough to take two sessions of home economics while in middle school and I can tell you right now I learned little to nothing about cooking and barely any more about sewing. This from a predominantly white mid-size town with excellent facilities (5-6 full kitchen work stations and about 30 sewing machines).

While I think utilizing the school system has the potential to be highly effective if done right (with a focus on money management and food preparation), I don't think this is feasible unless we find a magic money tree somewhere. Instead, we need to focus on what we can do and what we can teach. Everyone knows how to cook something, even if it's just a grilled cheese sandwich. Start there. Teach your kids how to make the best grilled cheese sandwich there ever was. Then send them to their aunt or their neighbor or their church to learn something new. Provide opportunities to learn whenever possible and try to learn with them. Help them to associate cooking with their sense of community and to take pride in their endeavors.

On the other side of this, we need to make infrastructure changes to eliminate food deserts and make healthy foods an affordable alternative through subsidies and education.

But a lot of these ideas are long-term goals. What can we do right now to make dining in more affordable? My answer: Cook in bulk. Last Tuesday I made about 12 servings of lasagna and 7 servings of pancakes and put most of them in the freezer. Sure, it was a lot of work on Tuesday, but over a week later I have severely cut down my cooking time and I have something I can grab'n'go when I'm rushing between work and school. If your freezer is big enough, cook a few different things all at once so you have options instead of eating lasagna every day (not that I'm complaining!). Cooking 12 servings of lasagna instead of 2 servings probably took an extra 10 minutes and I got an extra 10 meals out of the work. Same goes for the pancakes: A double batch will take 10 extra minutes but will double your servings at the end. Furthermore, it will save money in addition to time because you can buy food in bulk instead of buying single-serving containers.

Tada! Look at me try and solve the world's problems like I think they're easy. Or at least hand out a couple crutches to get by on.

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