Cost of Living1:56Mike von Massow
Skyrocketing prices have taken a big bite out of what Canadians are able to serve up for dinner but food economists say our ability to cope has been worsened by our collective decline in cooking skills.
“We are less able to cook than we were 30 or 40 years ago, and so it’s much more difficult for us to adapt our diet,” said Mike von Massow, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics department.
Of course no amount of cooking prowess will help if you can’t afford a basket of groceries. Nearly two million Canadians used a food bank in March, according to an annual report by Food Banks Canada.
But even for those fortunate enough to still afford their weekly grocery run, a lack of skills to improvise in the kitchen makes it harder to work around higher prices, such as by swapping ingredients for less-expensive alternates.
“If I’m not able to prepare beans or lentils, then it’s difficult for me to make that adjustment,” von Massow told Cost of Living. Same goes for knowing how to tenderize a cheaper cut of meat.
During the pandemic, Canadians did more cooking at home, making meals themselves when they couldn’t dine out at restaurants or pick up food court meals at work.
“But the question is, did they cook the variety of things that they might have?” said von Massow.
“All of us have sort of a core three or four go-to recipes. [But] are you able to adapt those recipes as the ingredients that you use become more expensive?”
A report from Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture in February 2021 found that only 35 per cent of Canadians surveyed learned at least one new recipe between the start of the pandemic and January 2021.
Von Massow said it’s not just how often we cook that matters. “It’s the ability to expand the range of things we can cook so that we can adjust to some of these high prices.”
Home economics optional for students
He said the decline in cooking skills has a number of origins. One of them is changes to school curriculum requirements.
“When I was a high school student, every high school student was required to take two courses in basic cooking. That doesn’t happen now.”
Some schools have excellent culinary programs, but they’re optional — and that’s had a big impact on cooking skills, he said.
Mairlyn Smith, a professional home economist and food writer based in Toronto, echoes that sentiment.
“I believe that when they made Grade 8 home ec not mandatory anymore, that cooking literacy started to decline.”
Raj Thandhi knows what it’s like to have to learn to cook in order to stay on budget.
“In my early twenties, and when I was first married, I was … a person that used everything convenient,” said Thandhi, who lives in Surrey, B.C. She’d shop at the deli counter, pick up convenience meals or go through a drive-thru.
“Then around 2010, 2011, my husband and I, we went through a tough financial patch. And at that time, we had a three-year-old and a six-year-old,” she said. “And I was sort of forced to learn how to cook because I just didn’t have the budget otherwise.”
She said she’d take a calculator with her to the grocery store to help her stick to her budget. “I was always looking for the better price, the better deals … things that, if you bought in bulk, wouldn’t go bad.”
Thandhi ended up discovering a love of cooking that prompted a new career as a food blogger at Pink Chai Living.
Both then and during today’s food inflation crisis, she said her familiarity with the plant-based dishes of her family’s Punjabi roots — many of them featuring inexpensive protein sources like legumes — was an advantage.
“Even now, I find myself leaning on my ability to make Indian dals or cook with chickpeas and kidney beans,” she said. “And my familiarity with dried beans and lentils is really what’s sort of helping us keep our grocery prices in check now.”
Proliferation of prepared foods
A 2010 federal government report called Improving Cooking and Food Preparation Skills, the most recent of its kind, said that all across the population, processed and pre-prepared foods have been normalized.
“Related to this normalization is the potential lack of transference of basic, traditional or ‘from scratch’ cooking and food preparation skills from parents (primarily mothers) to children and adolescents, which has traditionally been the primary mode of learning,” the report reads.
That tracks with Thandhi’s experience. “I did grow up in a house where my mom and my grandmother did cook, but I didn’t learn,” she said.
“My mom was a first-generation immigrant. She worked two or three jobs to keep the ship running for us. And she, quite frankly, didn’t have the time to teach us how to cook; she was just in survival mode.”
Von Massow said the phasing out of compulsory cooking courses in school coincided with an increase in households where both parents work, as well as in single-parent households with one working parent.
“The fact that we have a much higher workforce participation made it even more critical that we [learned] some of these basic skills in schools.”
‘I can actually cut an onion now’
Annie Belov, a 21-year-old student studying criminology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has taught herself a lot about cooking since food prices started shooting up.
“When the inflation wasn’t as bad, I was constantly eating out,” said Belov. That might mean buying food on campus or picking up a prepared item at Safeway when the price was still around $5, she said.
So she started googling things like “meal ideas for university students” or trying out recipes she found on TikTok or Reddit.
Belov now makes dishes such as Caesar salad, as well as hearty pasta salads that combine carbs with vegetables and a bit of chicken.
Her most proud accomplishment?
“I think the roast beef is, like, my most prized recipe I’ve learned because the first time I tried doing it, I literally cried because it was so stressful. But then, you know, I got it afterwards.”
Although the beef is only an occasional splurge, Belov said it’s something that can be stretched over a bunch of meals.
Belov said she’s a lot more efficient in the kitchen thanks to building her skills through trial and error. “I can actually cut an onion now without …, like, crying and it falling apart.”
And she can improvise a lot better than before. “Now, definitely more than before, I can kind of look in the pantry or in the freezer and be like, ‘OK, yeah, I can whip up something quick.'”
Not the answer to food insecurity
It’s important to note, however, that cooking skills alone cannot solve the affordability problem, said Elaine Power, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University.
Power researches food security and advocates for universal basic income.
“What we know for sure is that the only thing that moves the needle on statistically measured rates of food insecurity is increased income,” said Power.
She said she’s in the process of analyzing data from Ontario’s basic income pilot and how it impacted people’s food practices. “This is a natural experiment of sorts — same people, just add money. People’s food security status improved, but also their dignity and social inclusion. People tried new foods, had better quality food and experienced better health.”
So while cooking skills can better position people to feed themselves and their families as best they can in constrained circumstances, “that doesn’t, and can’t, compensate for income that is inadequate in the first place.”
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