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Why the kitchen is going the way of the sewing machine

A couple of years ago we described a house for baby boomers that had a “messy kitchen,” a small room with all the small appliances where people are doing what people really do to eat these days: nuking their dinners, pumping their Kuerigs and toasting their Eggos. As consultant Eddie Yoon of the Harvard Business Review noted, cooking is being reduced to “a niche activity that a few people do only some of the time.” Yoon writes:

I’ve come to think of cooking as being similar to sewing. As recently as the early 20th century, many people sewed their own clothing. Today the vast majority of Americans buy clothing made by someone else; the tiny minority who still buy fabric and raw materials do it mainly as a hobby.

He’s certainly not the first to think about this; even back in the 1920s people were imagining the “cookless household.” Matt Novak explained in Paleofuture that the telephone was changing everything, quoting an article from 1926 in Science and Invention magazine:

As the magazine explains, there were now caterers who had started doing something pretty revolutionary: home delivery of food that was ordered by phone. Those who didn’t have traditional kitchens (or the time to cook) were able to easily make an order over the phone and receive their meal within an hour. Over 5,000 families in England were doing just that in this experiment, the magazine raved. And there’s no doubt that the Americans would soon enjoy this service from New York to San Francisco.

tv dinner A modern, healthy diet. (Photo: Swanson/National Museum of American History)

In North America, prepared food went in another direction, where many people outsourced their cooking to frozen food that people heated or later, microwaved. But for many people these days, even nuking dinner is too much work, hence the explosion of food delivery services like Uber Eats and “cloud kitchens” that exist without restaurants, preparing food for delivery only. More people are eating like this all the time, and it’s “changing eating patterns in ways consumers, food companies and industry analysts are only beginning to understand, and the changes have far-reaching consequences for food businesses and families as the services spread to more parts of the country,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

A father of four told the Journal that it gave him more time with his family. “We used to go to the grocery store every Saturday and used to eat out once every weekend. That’s all delivery now. The value is invaluable.” One young woman said “it’s healthier than making a meal from leftover bagels and Doritos.”

Older people aren’t very different from that young woman; I remember my late mother would have a piece of toast for dinner or a bit of Lean Cuisine chicken and that was it. Shopping and cooking for one is hard and people often don’t do it, instead eating their own version of leftover bagels and Doritos.

The boom in cloud kitchens could change that. Cooking for one is expensive, but cooking for lots of people is more efficient. A study from investment bank UBS noted “The total cost of production of a professionally cooked and delivered meal could approach the cost of home-cooked food, or beat it when time is factored in.”

According to Business Insider, the UBS report also uses the sewing machine analogy:

For skeptics, consider the analogy of sewing and clothes production. A century ago, many families in now-developed markets produced their own clothes. It was in some ways another household chore. The cost of purchasing pre-made clothes from merchants was prohibitively expensive for most, and the skills to produce clothing existed at home. Industrialisation increased production capacity, and costs fell. Supply chains were established and mass consumption followed. Some of the same characteristics are at play here: we could be at the first stage of industrialising meal production and delivery.

Let the robots do it for you.

June toaster oven That’s one fancy toaster oven. (Photo: June)

There are other high-tech options that might make life easier for older people, who are now as tech-savvy as anyone. Several years ago we wrote about June, “the toaster oven that thinks it’s a computer.” I noted at the time that we would be living in smaller spaces, and that “the big range with oven is on its way out, and small, moveable and storable appliances will take over.”

Now June owners can talk to their Alexa or Echo devices and order special meals from Whole Foods designed for June. According to iMore, “More than thirty Cook Programs will be added to the ovens via a software update, which means you’ll just need to load in the ingredients and press a button to get cooking. Fresh salmon with lemon thyme rub, a variety of frozen snacks, vegetable medley, and more will be available as a one-touch recipe.” And of course, it will all be delivered by Amazon.

There are many upsides to this, the main one being that older people might eat healthier diets. The biggest downside might well be the waste of packaging; perhaps if it’s all standardized then the next delivery person can take the dishes back for washing and reuse. Then it might deliver the promise of using less energy, taking less space, creating less waste and creating more jobs.

Consultant Yoon claims that people fall into three groups: only 10 percent love to cook, 45 percent hate it, and 45 percent tolerate it because they have to do it. That 10 percent will always want their big kitchens. But I suspect that the other 90 percent will be a big market for delivery services, especially as the huge baby boomer cohort ages and as more and more of them live alone. For them, the kitchen is going the way of the sewing machine.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Why the kitchen is going the way of the sewing machine

Food delivery services and high-tech appliances could be a boon for boomers, especially if kitchens disappear.


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