Once Enthusiastic, Americans' 'Cooking Fatigue' Simmers As Pandemic Drags On

Nov 15, 2020
Originally published on November 15, 2020 4:53 am

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, the initial novelty of whipping up more homemade meals is fading.

Earlier this year, people busied themselves with batches of sourdough and banana bread. Americans bought groceries like never before, and embraced the chance to dabble in elaborate cooking projects.

Now, it looks like many are losing steam. Katie Workman, a chef and writer behind the recipe website The Mom 100, says "cooking fatigue" is real.

"Even people who really really like to cook are feeling the wear and tear" of prepping three meals every day, whether you're cooking for a family or solo, Workman says in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

A couple surveys support the notion that people are cooking more and getting tired of it.

Packaged food marketer Acosta Sales & Marketing says more than half of those surveyed are eating at home more, and a quarter of people it surveyed are tired of cooking more. Another survey, paid for by meal delivery service Sun Basket, found 55% of the 2,000 people surveyed are feeling cooking fatigue because of the pandemic.

Workman thinks people are getting burnt out in part because the pleasure of cooking food for friends and family or hosting dinner parties is gone — a void she can empathize with.

"I've always found the greatest motivation for cooking for me — and what ended up being my career — is how much I love to cook for other people," she says. "It just gives me such joy to make something that I know somebody will love, or something that is somebody's favorite."

The daily grind can be even more tedious for single cooks.

"When I talk to friends who are on their own, the monotony of cooking for oneself is really wearing on them," she says. "I find it incredibly impressive on any given day when somebody prepares a nourishing thoughtful meal for themselves. I think that that is such a beautiful act of self care."

At the same time, more people are struggling with food insecurity since the start of the pandemic, where the primary source of stress is often finding ways to stretch a meal or to put food on the table at all.

Workman is a board member and volunteer with New York City food salvage nonprofit City Harvest, and sits on the leadership council of the No Kid Hungry campaign. "The need is extraordinary," she says, "and the demand has doubled in many areas."

Amid record job losses and social distancing, holidays with loved ones certainly won't be the same this year. But Workman says if there's one day worth saving up your energy to cook, it's Thanksgiving.

"It doesn't matter if you have eight side dishes, two side dishes. It doesn't matter if you're cooking a turkey breast or a whole bird," she says. "The act of trying to create something that feels like you're marking the day — it's as much about positivity as it is about food — but I feel like this year, it's almost like a tonic we need."

NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Ned Wharton produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

First, there were the endless batches of sourdough bread and banana bread. Americans also bought groceries like never before, taking on elaborate cooking projects to kill time during lockdown and embrace the chance to eat at home more. But almost a year into quarantine, so many of us are just sick of it. Katie Workman is a chef and creator of the recipe website TheMom100.com. And we reached her in New Milford, Conn.

Welcome.

KATIE WORKMAN: Thank you - nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I did it all - banana bread. At a certain point, we were eating, like, three loaves of self-made sourdough a week.

WORKMAN: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I have the waistline to prove it. I did The New York Times giant crinkle cookies. You know, but it's hard - right? - to cook three meals a day ad infinitum. And I like to cook. So what are you hearing about cooking fatigue?

WORKMAN: Well, it's real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

WORKMAN: I will start by saying that there - it's no joke. And it's real. And even people who really, really like to cook are feeling the wear and tear of this dinners every night and breakfast and lunch. If you have a family, there's one level of cooking fatigue. If you're on your own, there's other elements of cooking fatigue. But it's for sure a thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think it's because a lot of the joy of cooking is sort of making meals for others? - and not just your family. I mean dinner parties, hosting. And we don't do that these days.

WORKMAN: I a hundred percent feel that that is true. And the reason that I love to cook is because I love to feed people. And I certainly love to feed my family. But I've always found the greatest motivation for cooking for me and what ended up being my career is how much I love to cook for other people. And I really get a, I'm going to say, almost selfish pleasure in cooking for people. I just - gives me such joy to make something that I know that somebody will love or something that is somebody's favorite. And I think that when I talk to friends who are on their own, the monotony of cooking for oneself is really wearing on them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shoutout to all the single cooks.

WORKMAN: Shoutout to all the single cooks. And seriously, like, it's really - I find it incredibly impressive on any given day when somebody prepares a nourishing, thoughtful meal for themselves. I think that that is such a beautiful act of self-care, which is, of course, a word that is really of the moment these days. And I am so impressed when people are doing that on a regular basis.

I know that takeout is something that people are - you know, use as a respite and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's different because you don't have the experience of the restaurant, of going out, of, you know, being with other people. I mean, you might enjoy a different type of cuisine. But it really isn't quite the same thing. And I think we should also note that, of course, many people are struggling with food insecurity right now. I mean, there is a huge economic crisis off the back of COVID.

WORKMAN: The need is extraordinary. I am on the board of City Harvest, which is New York City's largest food rescue organization. And the demand has doubled and in many areas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's turn to Christmas and Thanksgiving, though, because, you know, these are such important holidays, and they center around food. And I've always been planning my meals and really looking forward to it. And this year, I'm thinking maybe I should just order in. How do we recreate the magic?

WORKMAN: Yes. It's going to look very different these days. And that's the catchphrase. Like, Thanksgiving will be different. The holidays will be different. And my recommendation - if I was a doctor and I was writing a prescription, I would say, cook Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn't matter if you have eight side dishes, two side dishes. It doesn't matter if you're cooking a turkey breast or a whole bird. The act of trying to create something that feels like you're marking the day and - is as much about sort of, like, positivity as it is about food. But I feel like this year, it's almost like a tonic we need.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Katie Workman is a chef and a writer.

Thank you very much.

WORKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.