Why Do Millennials Struggle With Cooking?

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Kitchen prep table with a laptop showing the recipe
The Millennial 'mise-en-place' always includes a spot for a device.

hobvias sudoneighm / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Food is trendier than ever, thanks to mouthwatering Instagram feeds and glamorous cooking shows on TV, and yet it has not led to an increase in the number of people cooking food from scratch. Particularly among the Millennial generation, there is a startling lack of knowledge when it comes to basic cooking skills.

A rather depressing study commissioned by Porch.com found that just over half of Millennials surveyed were able to identify a garlic press and a salad spinner, and knew how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon. (The answer is three, in case you're wondering.) Three-quarters don't know how to peel a potato with a knife, 80 percent don't know how to melt chocolate, and 91 percent say they'd have difficulty following a recipe. The study group was small -- only 750 participants across three generational groups (Millennial, Gen X, Boomer) -- but it gives a discouraging impression overall of the state of home cooking.

So, why do Millennials have such underdeveloped kitchen skills?

Cooking in the Digital Age

An article in the Washington Post blames it partly on the rise of technology. With the Internet so easily accessible, young people don't have to learn kitchen skills as thoroughly as previous generations did. Young people may be cooking, but they're not retaining knowledge of the skills they are using.

"Blame it on a factor called 'cognitive offloading' -- relying on Google or Pinterest to remember a recipe or technique for you, rather than committing it to heart. 'Offloading robs you of the opportunity to develop the long-term knowledge structures that help you make creative connections, have novel insights, and deepen your knowledge,' Benjamin Storm, PhD, an associate psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told The New York Post... The unappetizing result: rote, uninspired dishes that would make your granny scoff.'"

YouTube tutorials and detailed recipes with step-by-step photos tend to promote dependence, rather than independence. Storm calls cookbooks "a set of training wheels," whereas the Internet is like a "souped-up motorcycle, fast and hard to resist." There's only so much detail a cookbook can provide, then you're left to figure out the rest, whereas the Internet will answer every question with a detailed video.

Until it can't because there's no WiFi...

Why Take the Traditional Approach?

According to pastry chef Genevieve Meli, it's a good idea to learn to cook from heart for those times when your battery dies or you can't get a signal: "Technology breaks; your brain won't. So you need to know how to do this without technology." Plus, if you ever do cook professionally, many restaurant kitchens are in basements. Meli points out, "There's no way you get service. So if you're going to rely on your phone, that's very silly."

Few people expect to cook professionally, but there is something to be said for being able to prepare food by memory. It's deeply satisfying and something to be proud of. These are the dishes that will become family traditions, beloved by kids and remembered by friends.

One of Food52's recent newsletters encouraged readers to "find their specialty, from gnocchi to grilled cheese." This recipe would be your own culinary masterpiece, "a signature dish that's comforting and impressive (while also shouting 'I made this!')." We could all benefit from this -- honing in on the foods that delight us most, learning how to make them to suit our tastes, and then making them over and over again until their creation becomes as automatic as breathing. That's the kind of thing that makes a person want to cook.

Getting offline could also help to shatter some of the unrealistic standards for culinary perfection that Instagram and food shows perpetuate. As fun and addictive as these forms of media are, they can make cooking seem difficult and intimidating -- not what new cooks need to be hearing.

The message that needs to be sent is, "You CAN do this and it won't be perfect, but that's fine." Use recipes as guidelines, but know that you can expand outside of them. Don't limit yourself to Internet sources. Make the same thing over and over again if you like it. Play with substitutions. And try to do as much of it as possible without YouTube explaining everything in the background, because you'll learn more in the process.