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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Roodnitsky: Cooking is an Increasingly Underrated and Imperative Skill

For a happier and healthier America, we must re-emphasize the importance of learning how to cook.

U.S. citizens are some of the busiest people in the world. Workaholism, anxiety and packed schedules define most of our lives. Alongside being either full-time students or employees, many of us strive to keep up with a long list of hobbies, maintain friendships and stay connected with our families. It’s no secret that we’re experiencing a social epidemic. According to the American Psychological Organization, 27% of Americans describe themselves as stressed to the point that they can’t even function. An extremely anxious society naturally has a hard time maintaining and sustaining a balanced lifestyle. As most are aware, living in this “go-go-go” mode every single day comes with significant trade-offs. For many, this takes the form of sacrificing the time it takes to cook meals for oneself. However, it may be easier to incorporate cooking into daily routines than we think. 

If you’re anything like me, you probably grew up with parents who had full-time jobs and never cooked meals, instead relying on frozen entrees and whatever fresh fruits and vegetables were on hand. Don’t get me wrong — I am extremely thankful for my parents, who immigrated to the United States for the purpose of giving my siblings and I a better life. They do, however, epitomize the normalized trend of depending on processed “TV dinners” to save time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t higher quality, fully prepared frozen meals available, but unfortunately those tend to be pricier and less accessible. Until very recently, my perception had been that cooking is an extremely difficult and time-consuming skill to acquire, which surveys find to be a widespread belief among Americans. However, in order for a meal to be nutritious it certainly doesn’t have to take two hours and be made fully from raw ingredients. I am a proponent of pre-cut frozen or fresh vegetables, pre-cooked canned staples and salad kits.

Though many dishes may sound complicated and time-consuming to prepare, once learned, they are actually relatively simple and require minimal time and effort. For example, some breakfast options that come to mind include overnight oats, banana pancakes, omelets and vegetable quesadillas. Easy lunches can consist of simple soups, burrito bowls, stir-frys, colorful salads, grain bowls and even smoothies. Achievable and tasty dinners — my personal favorite meal of the day — can encompass anything from homemade pizzas, baked stuffed cabbage rolls and hearty stews, to coconut chickpea curry with naan, sweet potato sliders, marinated mushrooms and tofu buffalo bites. Nonetheless, many people, like my parents, never took time to learn how to cook these kinds of simple meals that have balanced macronutrients and are packed with nourishing vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. 

During my off term, I’ve been trying to challenge my parents’ perception of how long it takes to make a decent, delicious meal compared to just heating something up in the oven. I discovered that my personal preparation and cooking time ranged from 15-45 minutes from start to finish. The average amount of time that Americans spend cooking per day is 37 minutes, so I was pretty close. When I started timing myself, I was quite surprised at the relatively little amount of time it took to prepare meals for myself. My previous belief that cooking for yourself takes at least an hour was shattered. Of course, with more practice making a dish, the faster the process got for me. My parents’ frozen pizzas and lasagnas were challenged quite soundly — and now my family gets giddy when I’m in charge of dinner. 

Still, carving out those 15-45 minutes was admittedly difficult at first. Surveys also show that finding that time is one of the biggest burdens that people use to justify not cooking for themselves. As a student with a full schedule, I highly empathize with that. By the time dinner rolls around, it’s quite understandable to just eat “instant” foods, snacks or a microwavable dinner. However, if we all collectively decide that it’s worth weaning off of constantly getting takeout and relying on frozen entrees, we all would be much happier and healthier on many levels. Even if we only made a few dinners for ourselves each week, the overall well-being of Americans would skyrocket. In fact, we recently saw a glimpse of this COVID-19 lockdown: A 2021 study found that psychological well-being increased with greater participation in culinary activities.  

In the hectic world we live in today, finding some semblance of balance sounds nearly impossible for a lot of us without a significant amount of effort. The last thing we need is another thing on our plates — pardon the pun — and being mindful of including home-cooked meals into our day sounds overwhelming. However, with little changes, it becomes a habit that will barely need any thinking to incorporate into our lifestyles. When you begin cooking for yourself, not only does your risk for serious illnesses go down, but on top of the physical health benefits, it’s a great way to express your creativity, de-stress, sharpen our minds, boost your confidence and take care of yourself.