There’s a bit of a debate going on about whether the lack of cooking at home is responsible for people eating unhealthily. Matt Yglesias has a piece arguing that cooking at home isn’t fundamentally different from restaurant cooking, and “If someone – Jamie Oliver, for example – devised an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier, well that would be an excellent thing for the world.” Well, it sure would. It would be nice if someone could make a car that drives like a BMW but doesn’t use any gas and costs less than $1000 too.
“Cooking yourself” is not the point. “Cooking at home” is. This is because home cooking is different from restaurant cooking, and yes, there is a fundamental difference between food you prepare for yourself and food prepared by other people, at least when the latter is in a commercial/restaurant context. Unless you have a private chef, food prepared for you by other people is food prepared for… whomever. This difference is largest at scale. Industrial food is the way it is because it’s designed to be made/prepared/”made” by people with no skill at cooking for a clientele who may show up at any time and want what they want, and when you do that, you lose all kinds of properties of the food that go into making it healthier. You lose varietal selection. You lose focus on balance. You lose accounting for individual tastes. You lose someone insisting that you eat your vegetables (both because they’re good for you and also because whoever cooked them put a lot of effort into making them for you). You lose incentive to not use cheaper ingredients (or at least you divorce yourself from that decision). You lose incentive to not use flavor boosters that are unhealthy. You lose the ability to make food on demand, so there’s incentive to use ingredients that will store better. Fine cuisine doesn’t fare much better, because it’s not optimized for health, but for flavor and pleasure.
Healthy food has a lot of properties that are, I think, inherently unscalable. Saying that restaurants should offer cheap healthy options is not understanding the problem. Yes, cooking at home is a lot of work, and sometimes that takes away from the time you could be using to watch a movie or read a blog, but the benefits are immense, and they won’t realistically ever come out of a restaurant. Is that really such a bad thing?