But there has also been tremendous upheaval in the structures of American life and work. Women—the people traditionally forced into meal management—have voluntarily entered the workforce in droves or been forced into it for financial reasons. Average commute times get longer seemingly every year, ensuring that working adults get home later and later. And almost all middle-class work now involves a great deal of time spent on a computer, which means millions of Americans’ jobs don’t end for the day when they leave the office. For many, their work never really ends at all.
Derek Thompson: Workism is making Americans miserable
Predictably, these drastic changes in how Americans spend their days have led to similarly enormous differences in how they spend their evenings. Women now devote a little more than half the average time per day to cooking compared with 1965. Men cook a bit more on average, but their increased time in the kitchen is not nearly enough to make up the difference. Fast food has proliferated to fill that gap, especially among low-wage workers who most lack resources and control of their own time. More recently, the rapid expansion of pricier “fast-casual” chains that claim healthier and fresher offerings suggests that an even broader proportion of the population is now looking for quick fixes. Going out to dinner is fun, but if it feels like the only option, it can drain bank accounts and make people feel unable to care for their bodies.
This net loss in meal time can beget a nagging tension. There’s that lingering moralistic pressure that it’s important for you to cook wholesome food, sit down with people you care about, breathe, enjoy. But for many people, the trade-offs it would take to get there push the ideal dinner farther and farther out of reach. This can weigh especially hard on parents, who often simply don’t have the time that preparing family meals requires. In a 2011 survey from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of parents said they had dinner with at least one of their children at least a few times per week; only half said it happens every night. A 2014 poll found that more than half of adults felt that they had fewer meals with their families now than when they were kids.
The most detailed meal stats are kept on parents, and for most of modern history, surveying the country’s landscape of married people and parents would give you a pretty solid idea of how even young adults were living. In 1968, for example, 83 percent of people between 25 and 37 years old were married. But in 2018, only 46 percent of people in the same age range had tied the knot. Today, 24 million more households consist of adult roommates than in 1995. From February 2018 to February 2019, 45 percent of American meals were eaten alone.
Eating alone or with an inconsistent set of friends, dating partners, and housemates can make cooking at home a tricky proposition. Food marketers are fast at work developing products to serve the burgeoning band of solo eaters, but many grocery packages and recipes are developed for multiple people eating the same dish the night it’s made. (Good luck buying a single chicken breast.) People navigate this by eating out, grabbing takeout, or ordering from a delivery app. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of adults under 35 had eaten dinner at a restaurant in the previous week, and 41 percent had done it two or more times. The numbers were far lower for adults over 55. Among young adults making less than $30,000 a year, most still had a restaurant dinner. Cooking is less expensive in the long term, but a well-stocked kitchen and time to prepare meals are often very difficult to come by for the working poor.