Truly Costing A Home-Cooked Meal

At Mother Jones, Tom Philpott deconstructed part of the argument made when suggesting that home-cooked meals are less expensive than fast food or eating out when he touched upon the fact that labour is not accounted for in those nifty little infographics designed to shame people for not cooking at home. Philpott pointed out that adding in the labour of making something like a chicken dinner, factoring in planning, shopping, actual food prep, and cleaning, makes it much more expensive. He also stressed that one reason fast food is so cheap is because of labour exploitation—paying everyone on the supply chain a fair wage all the way up would result in a much higher cost at the register for a fast food meal.

Philpott, however, didn’t go deep enough, although his briefing was extremely helpful in terms of expanding the nature of the discussion when it comes to cooking, nutrition, and food security. Progressive publications have been using these ‘home-cooked food is always cheaper’ infographics for years, as though repeating something enough times will make it true. They ignore the costs embedded in cooking at home and send messaging which is frankly contemptuous of people who have their own math to factor in, and have sat down to figure it out.

When you factor in labour, you have to think not just about how many hours of labour are involved and the cost for those hours, but whether they are actually available, which for some cooks, they are not. People working multiple jobs may literally not have enough hours in the day to work, sleep, take care of errands and basic things at home, and cook. This is particularly true of people who also have jobs at home caring for children and other family members, many of whom are women tasked with this labour as unpaid ‘staff’ members.

Calculations for shopping also need to take in some complex considerations. I can understand why Philpott left them out, in the interest of presenting a clear, simple argument to add to the discussion, and I don’t fault him for it, but it’s worth probing more deeply.

I, for example, live 10 minutes away by car from a grocery store that stocks a variety of basic items. If I have a well-organised shopping list, I can account for 30 minutes of shopping to get to the store, zip around, check out, and go home. Other people may have to visit multiple stores to get all the ingredients they need for a meal, may need to rely on public transit, may live in isolated areas where it takes far more than 10 minutes to get to the store. Suddenly, the costs of meal production rise dramatically.

There are also costs that are more difficult to factor in economic terms. Disability, for example, can add to the complexity of meal production. How is someone with a limited number of functional hours in the day supposed to decide which things in life should be prioritised, and how to handle them? If someone needs to work eight hours and just barely has energy for that, should that person go home and attempt to cook? Can that person even cook at all? Should that person be obliged to spend time cooking on the weekends to get food ready for the week when weekends may be used for resting up for the work week, or doing errands, or even engaging in pleasurable activities that are carefully budgeted for, in terms of both money, time, and energy?

Access to kitchens and cooking implements is also a cost factor. Some people have well stocked kitchens, others have hot plates. Some people have lots of pots and pans, others have a single pot and one roasting pan they use to make everything. Some people have an array of kitchen gadgets along with tools like blenders and food processors, others do not. When a recipe starts with  ‘blend’ or ‘put in the food processor on ‘chop’ setting,’ it can be an instant turnoff for someone who is, perhaps, trying something new. In shared housing, access to a clean, safe kitchen may not necessarily be guaranteed, which should be a consideration when talking about the costs of food preparation for low-income people, who are more likely to be working in shared kitchen environments.

How do you factor in the cost of lack of knowledge about food and nutrition? Campaign exhort people to eat their vegetables; this is messaging many people are familiar with, and many people know, for example, that they should eat ‘five a day.’ But what’s in a serving of fruit or vegetables? How do you prepare fruits or vegetables? How do you make food palatable to a picky child who often refuses to eat? How do you deal with food allergies in a member of the family? Do you make two separate meals? Change the family’s whole diet?

Campaigns to get people to eat ‘healthier’ often frame consumers as ignorant and helpless, incapable of making decisions for themselves and too stupid to make the right choices unless they are repeatedly lectured. These campaigns don’t actually do much to rectify that ignorance, however, to put tools in the hands of people who can use them. That five a day label could include an illustration of a serving and a recipe suggestion using common ingredients and basic tools and equipment; a recipe, for example, that could be made on a hotplate in someone’s room if necessary, or one that could integrate convenience foods. Throw some baby bok choi in with your cup of noodles, say.

It’s hard to integrate all the factors that contribute to the costs of food preparation. That was Philpott’s main point, and it’s mine as well. Getting people to understand this is critical for the next step, which is to figure out how to tackle these costs effectively, how to provide people with tools they can use to make nutritional decisions for themselves and access the foods they want.