Healthy, Affordable Fast Food: Feminism's Holy Grail

Life would be so much easier for working parents if they could easily buy inexpensive meals for their families.
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Imagine a world where you could walk up to a takeout counter and get a healthy, tasty dinner for four—say, roast chicken and broccoli, fish curry and potatoes, veggie burgers with sweet potato wedges—all for less than $6 a serving, the average per-person cost of a home-cooked meal in America. Would you do it? Would you do it every day? How about three meals a day?

In last week's New York Times Magazine, Mark Bittman explored the growing world of healthy fast food, with an eye toward evaluating its tastiness. But Bittman still looks at fast food—no matter how healthy —in terms of an occasional stopgap snack—something to eat at the airport, a treat after orthodontic surgery.

I say, if we had truly healthy, truly affordable, truly delicious, truly fast fast food, it could be far more than an occasional thing. It could be a major boon to working families, to single parents, to couples who fight about who's going to fix dinner and who's going to watch the squealing, hungry kids. It could help bring a quicker end to the notorious "second shift" of housework done by working women.

If we had healthy, tasty, affordable fast food, why not eat it every day?

Utopian thinkers have long dreamed that the drudgery of the kitchen could one day be outsourced and professionalized, replaced by efficiencies of scale. Feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she of "The Yellow Wallpaper" fame, also authored "The Home: Its Work and Its Influences," and "Women and Economics," which argued that it was both misery-producing and inefficient to have every woman do all her own household tasks. She envisioned a world of communal kitchens and childcare, where domestic duties would be done by experts particularly suited to the tasks, while others would do whatever they were good at—writing, bridge-building, hat-making.

In his bestselling 1888 sci-fi novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy envisioned the year 2000 as a socialist utopia where cooking and housework was done by a cheerful "industrial army." Efficiency expert Martha Bensley Bruère promoted the idea of cooperative apartment buildings with meals and maid service.

There were attempts to implement these ideas—a public kitchen at Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago; Boston's New England Kitchen, which sold cheap but nutritious meals to factory girls in the North End; World War II munitions factories which had canteens selling affordable healthy family dinners for its female workers to take home at the end of shifts. But these were largely short-lived, either because of the un-tastiness of their food (the Italian immigrants in Boston were not fond of the bland, garlic-free New England Kitchen meals), or their temporary natures.

Today, it's the received wisdom among the educated middle-class that home-cooking is best: best for health, best for budget, best for the environment, best even for children's development (the importance of sit-down family dinner, which we've heard about ad nauseam for the past 20 years, is not borne out by research, by the way). Celebrity endorsements have only made this "common sense" more entrenched. In her Let's Move initiative, Michelle Obama promotes home cooking as key to combating childhood obesity. On Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, the British celebrity chef descended on Huntington, West Virginia to teach residents how to cook as a means of reducing the region's epic levels of obesity and diabetes. Mark Bittman has made his career plugging for home cooking against fast food, trying to demonstrate that a home-cooked meal is in fact cheaper (though he doesn't factor in time and labor costs).

"The real challenge is not 'I'm too busy to cook.'" Bittman insists. "In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there."

And, yes, clearly eating healthy dinners at home is a much better option than eating a Whopper, a Bloomin' Onion, or a plate of steak frites at your local bistro. And cooking at home is delightful—if you like to cook. There's nothing wrong with teaching people how to cook—the more people who like to do it, the better, I say.

But many people don't like to cook, even those who know how. And many people who do like to cook don't like to do it after a long day at work. TV time, or other forms of relaxation, are not fungible with time spent cooking dinner.

This is hard to understand for many of us middle—and upper-middle class Americans, for whom cooking is a hobby and a form of relaxation, especially fulfilling after a day spent sitting motionless at a computer. We have the education and leisure time to cultivate cooking skills, enjoy farmer's markets as a form of recreation and social activity, indulge in food porn in Saveur or TasteSpotting.com. And when we don't want to cook, we can afford to go to Whole Foods or have sushi.

But when you spend all day cleaning hotel rooms or standing behind the check-out counter at Target, you're not exactly yearning to work with your hands. And when you've got two hungry, screaming children butting heads in the living room, the wait for water to boil can seem interminable.

Yet America, even as it reaches for convenience, has the deep seated belief that cooking is a personal obligation, and that shirking this obligation is lazy, harmful, bad.

This is not the case everywhere. I live in Hong Kong, where, because of tiny kitchens and long work hours, almost everyone relies on takeaway or pre-prepared foods for dinner. Some of it's crap, but some of it's healthy—stalls sell fish balls and tofu puffs and pre-sliced veggies for soup, or boxes of rice with bok choy and pork. In Singapore, outdoor "hawker centers" offer everything from fresh fruit cups to plates of sautéed pea shoots to turnip-stuffed spring rolls, all of it subsidized by the government to ensure affordability. You don't hear women around here talking about feeling guilty for not making their own dumplings.

Let me reiterate: I think cooking is great. But why should "more home cooking" be a better answer than "healthier take-out"?

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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