Why bother cooking from scratch?

chopping garlic
© K Martinko

As part of TreeHugger's Town & Country series, Katherine and Margaret share why cooking is not only eco-friendly, but also personally satisfying.

Katherine: Home cooking is a humble yet powerful act with the ability to transform our bodies and our world.

Every day around 4:30 in the afternoon I head for the kitchen. It’s that time of day when I have to start thinking about supper. My husband (who is a great cook in his own right and cooks several times a week when I’m at the gym) hangs out with the kids while I putter around the kitchen for an hour or so until dinner is ready and we can all sit down to eat together.

Cooking dinner is now one of my favourite times of the day, but it wasn’t always like that. As a university student, I recall eating at random times, with no regular meals. I mostly ate individual foods, rather than composed dishes, because I didn’t bother much with cooking. It wasn’t until I had my first child and realized that he needed to eat on a regular schedule that I gradually imposed regularity onto food preparation. Over the past five years, that mealtime schedule has become the backbone of my family’s life and everything else revolves around it. Now I cook every single meal we eat from scratch, except for the occasional night when we eat out or visit with friends.

I am a strong believer in the power of cooking. It’s a humble, simple act, but it requires so much dedication to accomplish every single day and has wide-reaching benefits that stretch beyond the family to include the community, economy, and world.

Home-cooked food is the healthiest because I know exactly what’s in everything I make. I don’t worry about sodium, fat, or sugar because I’m the one who determines how much goes in. Artificial flavourings, colours, and unpleasant additives are a non-issue because all the food we eat comes from fresh, whole ingredients.

Cooking at home allows me to support the local food industries and organic agriculture that I believe in so strongly. Few restaurants are willing to invest in sustainable food sourcing, so I can rest assured that my family is eating the highest quality ingredients because I’m the one who has purchased them firsthand from producers. We eat seasonally, thanks to our CSA share, and buy hormone-free, local meat.

I am able to reduce the output of household waste significantly by preparing food myself. Processed and pre-made foods come with loads of packaging that end up in landfill and recycling, whereas buying whole ingredients either loose or in reusable packaging has reduced our kitchen waste to almost nothing.

Making home-cooked meals the norm ensures that my family sits down to eat together every single night of the week. Like most families, we too have extracurricular activities, but they must fit around dinnertime. It’s a brief escape from the busyness of the day when we can take a break, talk about the day’s adventures, and work on our little sons’ table etiquette. It's also a fun opportunity for everyone to pitch in and cook together, especially when guests or extended family come to visit.

© K Martinko

For the countless people who complain about not having time to cook dinner, I just don’t buy that argument. It’s a question of priority, and if someone truly wants to eat healthy homemade food on a daily basis, it’s entirely possible. Obviously you can’t make homemade tortellini on a weeknight, but there’s no reason you can’t boil some dried pasta and whip up a quick spicy tomato sauce from olive oil, garlic, and canned tomatoes in the time it takes to cook the pasta. I bet it would take less time than baking a frozen pizza in the oven.

Home cooking should not be synonymous with taking a lot of time, because it doesn’t have to. The biggest challenge is organization, and that can be overcome by menu planning in advance, shopping with a detailed list, and knowing which recipes are fast and efficient.

There are countless more reasons why I believe in the power of cooking to transform our bodies and our world, but I’ll have to hand it over to Maggie now, to hear about her take on home cooking in NYC.

Margaret: Vote with your fork!

My mother had an impressively busy work and travel schedule, first as an auto industry executive and then starting her own consulting business. But she still managed to find time to teach me to cook. We started with simple things when I was seven or eight, like grilled cheese and scrambled eggs. I remember standing on a stool to see the stovetop. Then I learned to bake: cookies and muffins and cupcakes. I learned to steam vegetables and make curry. On holidays, we would make the dishes that were served during my mother's childhood, and like many people who love to cook, these foods made me feel connected to women of the family who lived before me.

I didn't think about where my ingredients came from until I read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" as a freshman in college. Before then, I thought "Organic" was just a health label, but I learned how much damage conventional farming does to the environment. I started looking for organic ingredients at the grocery store. Then in my sophomore year, I discovered the farmer's market. For a college student on a tight budget, the farmer's market was way more affordable, and there was a big difference in the freshness of the ingredients. My food tasted better and my vegetables didn't go bad as fast.

Now that I've joined the "grown-up" world, eating out is a big part of my social life. But because I work from home, I still cook the majority of my meals. I still shop at the farmer's market, and look for local and organic ingredients. Like Katherine, cooking from scratch helps me eat healthier, with the confidence that I know all the ingredients in my food.

I know I run the risk of sound like a food snob, but cooking my own dishes also just tastes better than the pre-packaged stuff. The last time I had canned soup, it was so sad and bland compared to homemade stuff. If I know I'm going to be too busy to spend time cooking, I'll try to make a big pot of something like stir-fry and keep in the fridge. I also keep salad makings and sandwich ingredients around, for when I'm in a big hurry.

Margaret Badore/CC BY 2.0

I've heard several New Yorkers claim the cost of ingredients is so high in the city that it's cheaper to eat takeout, but cheap takeout is so unhealthy that this does not seem like a worthwhile tradeoff--and it's probably the worst option sustainability-wise when you combine the waste from takeout containers with the environmental footprint created by non-local, pesticide-drenched ingredients.

Cooking from scratch and a little meal-planning actually save me a lot of money. I spend more on quality ingredients, but I can still keep my weekly grocery bill under $50.00. That way I can afford to eat out a couple of times per week.

For me, cooking is a pleasure that connects me to my family that I'm separated from by time and space. I like the idea that I'm "voting with my fork," and supporting the kind of agriculture that I want to see more of in the world.

The recipe pictured above is Sweet potato soup.

Tags: Cooking | Food Miles