Even Thanksgiving can come in a box.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nobody Cooks, and Maybe That's OK

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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The vast majority of Americans will be sitting down to a gigantic, mostly home-cooked meal this Thursday. So this seems like as good a time as any to point out that such meals have become an anomaly. Basic ingredients -- such as, you know, turkeys, cranberries and sweet potatoes -- now account for only 5 percent of U.S. food spending.

Not Making Much From Scratch
Percentage of household food expenditure by type, 2010
 
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Basic ingredients also accounted for 5 percent of spending in 1999, so at least that's not on the decline. But according to the June 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report from which I got these numbers, prices rose faster from 1999 through 2010 for basic ingredients than for any of the other food categories -- so consumers were getting relatively less of them for the money. And I've got to think that, 50 or 100 years ago, basic ingredients made up a much higher share of food spending.

Another view of food-spending patterns comes from the Census Bureau's monthly retail sales data.

Letting Others Do the Cooking
Monthly sales, seasonally adjusted
 
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Sometime soon, it appears, spending at restaurants and bars will surpass spending at food and beverage stores. That doesn't necessarily mean more people will be eating out than staying home: according to market-research firm NPD Group, 48 percent of dinner meals purchased from restaurants are eaten at home as takeout. NPD also reports that sales of prepared foods at grocery stores are up 30 percent since 2008. The overall picture is pretty clear: Americans are increasingly outsourcing the preparation of their food.

I'm a cooking-from-scratch kind of guy, and I'm tempted to assault you now with a long screed that would eventually boil down to me asserting my moral superiority. But there's obvious economic logic to putting food preparation in the hands of experts and letting those who don't get actual pleasure from cooking do other things with their time -- and their kitchen space. Take it from Rob Rhinehart, co-founder and chief executive officer of the venture-capital-backed California startup that makes meal-replacement drink Soylent:

I think it was a bit presumptuous for the architect to assume I wanted a kitchen with my apartment and make me pay for it. My home is a place of peace. I don’t want to live with red hot heating elements and razor sharp knives. That sounds like a torture chamber. However, it’s not a total loss. I was able to use the cabinets to store part of my book collection.

The big problem with leaving food preparation to the experts, though, has been that up to now the experts in food preparation in the U.S. have mainly been experts in making unhealthy food addictive. The move away from making food from scratch has been accompanied by a big increase in obesity that is probably not coincidental.

So the challenge is building and sustaining a food-preparation sector that doesn't make us sick. I guess Rhinehart's Soylent is a step in that direction with its more wholesome alternative to sugar-laden protein drinks -- although the fact that the stuff was literally making people sick earlier this year means it's probably not the best example. But there are lots of other newcomers to the food preparation scene, many of them also backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, that are trying to make wholesomeness and healthiness a selling point.

Some of them are struggling! It was a story by Bloomberg's Eric Newcomer on the troubles at Munchery, a San Francisco startup that cooks and delivers meals in several U.S. cities, that got me thinking about this topic. I was initially inclined to bash Silicon Valley and its arrogant belief that it can reinvent every business, even a low-margin one with limited capacity for digitization. Plus, who the heck would want to get their meals from a venture-backed startup called Munchery!

Then I talked to my 94-year-old father, and learned that he and my stepmother have actually tried Munchery and now buy three dinners a week from a rival called Thistle that promises (and, from what my dad says, delivers) "simple, clean, whole foods made with loving hands and organic, seasonal ingredients." The aging of the U.S. population is one more reason to think the trend away from cooking for ourselves is going to continue for while yet. And upon reflection I have concluded that I should probably be rooting for Silicon Valley's efforts to build a food business that isn't constructed from junk instead of mocking them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net