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Bake or buy? Comparative and theoretical perspectives on divisions of labour in food preparation work

Cuire ou acheter? Perspectives comparatives et théoriques sur les divisions du travail dans le travail de préparation alimentaire
Miriam A. Glucksmann


The proportion of food preparation work undertaken in the home varies historically and spatially. Many countries have witnessed a shift in the overall division of labour of ‘food work’, from household to market, and from unpaid domestic labour to work undertaken by paid employees, whether in factories or restaurants. This article undertakes comparative analysis of the changing place of domestic food preparation in the wider division of labour drawing on the concept of ‘consumption work’ understood as including ‘all work necessary for the purchase, use, re-use and disposal of consumption goods and services’. Two countries with distinct culinary cultures and recent histories of food preparation are compared: Taiwan, where a strong national culinary culture is maintained alongside a rapid and dramatic shift to food prepared by commercial outlets, and the UK which has experienced significant decline in the time spent on meal preparation in the home, and proliferation of ready-prepared meals available in supermarkets for consumption at home. The consumption work lens reveals that despite certain similarities, there is no single trajectory or temporality of change.

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Consumption work in divisions of labour: the case of food

1This article concentrates on the work of food preparation rather than the practices of eating. Its focus is the contribution of consumers to completing the system of food provisioning, and on nationally comparative variations in that contribution, especially in the context of ready-prepared food and its proliferation. While consumption itself involves the actual using or using up of goods or services, the work of consumers comprises a wide range of activities presupposed by, prior to or surrounding consumption, including ‘all work necessary for the purchase, use, re-use and disposal of consumption goods and services’. Although analytically distinct from consumption, the work consumers do finalises or finishes what they actually consume, and in this sense consumption work comprises ‘a missing link’ between production and consumption (Glucksmann 2013).

2Many countries have witnessed a shift over recent decades in the overall division of labour of ‘food work’ across socio-economic domains, from household to market, and from informal and unpaid domestic labour to work undertaken by paid employees, whether in factories or restaurants. But what is the nature of this shift, and how and why does it differ in different national contexts and cultures? Despite the global expansion of food commoditisation, it would be as naïve to assume a common single trajectory of change or a single end-point, as to expect common temporalities. Thus comparison of shifting food-work boundaries in Taiwan and the UK will explore differences in starting point, direction, pace and modality of change.

3While food work in the home is commonly acknowledged as a form of domestic labour, its content and contours can be explained neither within the confines of the household economy nor without reference to the ‘readiness’ of the raw materials entering the kitchen since this affects the extent and nature of the additional labour expended on preparing it for consumption. Food preparation work within the home cannot be fully appreciated without situating it within the wider division of labour beyond the household that is associated with making food ready to consume, a process that also comprises producers, manufacturers and retailers. The concept of consumption work encompasses the interdependence of differing socio-economic domains and so provides a broader analytical framework, in contrast to that of domestic labour which, by defining labour in terms of the place it is conducted, risks isolating the household as a separate sphere to be examined solely internally. Historically and comparatively there are vast variations in the distribution of work across and between socio-economic domains both over time and between different countries.

  • 1 ‘Societal Divisions of Labour and Consumption Work.’ The research programme explores ‘consumption w (...)

4In many fields of economic activity, including food preparation, the completion of a circuit of production, distribution, exchange and consumption is predicated on consumers undertaking work in order to consume. If different stages in the cycle of production and provision to consumption require different kinds of input on the part of consumers, it follows that analysis of the division of labour is incomplete without their inclusion. Thus a key theoretical aim of my current research programme1 is to integrate the unpaid work of the consumer into the division of labour, and to explore the connections between work undertaken under differing socio-economic relations in the completion of systems of provision. Shifts in the boundary of responsibility between different domains will necessarily impact on the distribution of paid and unpaid work, and reconfigure the division of labour of the different aspects and stages of work. Shifts may be in either direction, associated for example with expansion of the market of goods or services produced as commodities, manufactured or provided and sold by paid workers, or with a contraction of market activity and corresponding expansion of the work that falls to the public or not-for-profit sectors, households, communities and consumers.

  • 2 Of course, while the market and household are the dominant food provisioning institutions, they are (...)

5Vast international variations in food cultures and cuisines make the work of food preparation an ideal field for pursuing these concerns. Food work is here conceived as a form of consumption work, through which household members work on raw materials or part-prepared goods purchased from the market to turn them into meals and food that is ready to be consumed. The primary focus of research is the boundary between work undertaken in the market and in the household, and shifts of and across that boundary. 2 On the surface it offers a rather simpler terrain of study than many other cases (such as care work), since work is primarily undertaken in only two domains, the market and the household. Historically and in some European countries today state-subsidised or employer-provided canteens or meals also play a part, but these are beyond the scope of the current paper.

Researching food preparation as consumption work

6Countries for comparison were selected on account of their distinct culinary cultures and recent histories of food preparation. Taiwan maintains a strong national culinary culture alongside a rapid and dramatic historical shift to food prepared by commercial outlets. The UK has witnessed a significant decline in the time spent on meal preparation in the home, and rapid expansion in ready and part-prepared meals available in supermarkets as market-produced commodities for consumption at home. France comprised a third comparator country but this article is limited to discussion of Taiwan and the UK. Cultural and historical differences suggest variations both in the relative contribution of consumers to the work of food preparation and in the overall division of labour between producers, manufacturers and retailers and so between paid and unpaid, formal and informal work. The comparison focuses especially on ready-prepared food, in the form of cook-chill meals or meal components that can be combined into a meal, since this is the ‘meeting point’ for market and household labour, paid employment and unpaid work. The growth (or decline) of ready-made foods is indicative of a shift in the boundary between household labour and market-based work. Ready-prepared food is valuable also in revealing as work many activities that are clearly understood as such when taken out of the home, but may not be so recognised in the domestic sphere, such as washing salad or combining ingredients in a dish or on a plate. But as we shall see, there has been a very significant transition in Taiwan towards eating out as well as towards buying-in, suggesting a spatial as well as economic shift.

7The comparison is multi-dimensional: within each country over time, broadly a forty year span from the 1970s to the present day; between the two countries at any particular point in time (synchronic variation), as well as over the forty years as a whole (diachronic change) in terms of pace, direction, trajectory, extent and current end-point of change. The outcome is not intended to be a comparative set of detailed case studies, nor a classification or typology of food preparation work. The objective, rather, is to use the variety, both historical and spatial, to problematise what is meant by ‘economic’ activity, work and non-work, consumption, consumption work and leisure, and how to understand the interactions between polity, economy, society, culture and history. The focus on varying boundaries and configurations has considerable potential for grounding and developing the concept of consumption work.

  • 3 I am very grateful to Dr Katy Wheeler who undertook and analysed this survey. The three locations s (...)
  • 4 Dr Yujen Chen (Department of Taiwan Culture, Language and Literature, National Taiwan Normal Univer (...)

8In order to understand the national profiles of food preparation work and explain their specificity and difference, the research drew on a varied range of observations, empirical data and documentary sources in addition to official statistics on employment and consumer spending, and the food sector and time use surveys. The widest range of resources was deployed in the UK, including, in addition to official accessible sources and market and consumer research reports, interviews conducted with managers and designers in major food factories producing for the main supermarkets; consumer focus groups; and an in-depth thirty household survey and subsequent food diaries in three geographic locations representative of variations in socio-economic status, age and household composition.3 In addition, systematic ‘shopper observation’ of ready-meals and prepared foods was undertaken in site visits across the supermarket spectrum. Taiwan proved a more challenging country to study, given the relatively less developed social scientific study of food. Official statistics on production and consumption in the food sector, by contrast, were detailed but published only in Mandarin. In addition to analysis of the official sources, and systematic shopper and restaurant observation, this part of the research relied on eight extensive interviews with experts from the major manufacturers and retailers of prepared foods, including the main multiples and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven.4 These were complemented by a series of seventeen consumer interviews and a focus group in order to explore food histories and generational change.

9The research proceeded iteratively, from empirical investigation to conceptual elaboration and back again. This aided identification of the various consumption work tasks associated with domestic food preparation. Such distinctions were then used for further probing of changing dynamics in the different countries. As in other fields, the work of consumers with respect to food preparation work includes a range of activities both prior to and post acquisition of goods or services that are a precondition of using or appreciating them. Four broad components were distinguished. The first comprises the main routine daily repetitive tasks of planning meals, shopping for ingredients, cooking, clearing away, washing up and the disposal of waste and leftovers. But in addition there is also, second, the temporally less frequent work of acquiring equipment of various kinds (utensils and fridges, cookers and so on), learning how to use it, and maintaining it. A third component involves acquisition of the competences required for cooking and food preparation, including a diverse range of knowledge, from hygiene to cuisines, to practical skills in following recipes, preparation instructions or having sufficient expertise to improvise. Cooking relies on the prior accumulation of such knowledge, which, if not transmitted informally or intergenerationally, has to be formally learned (Leadbeater 1999). That such knowledge may often be tacit does not detract from its significance. Eating ‘properly’ according to cultural norms also involves acquiring competences, of a rather different kind, in the use of appropriate tools, whether these are knife and fork, chopsticks or fingers. Elias’s history (1978-82) of developments in eating implements is instructive here. Thus, another important element of consumption work, in addition to undertaking the tasks themselves preparatory to consumption, is acquisition of the skills and knowledge required in order to perform them.

10The co-ordination of activities, people, and products comprises the fourth component of consumption work associated with food preparation. Commensality for example doesn’t just ‘happen’ but relies on quite a complex organisation of household members being assembled together at the right time, and food acquired and cooked so that it is ready for them to eat. Shopping for raw materials and meal ingredients requires a different kind of coordination, as does going to a restaurant. Even though not consciously recognised, the social coordination of activities, people and consumption goods requires organisation on the part of consumers. The activity of social coordination embraces much more than the economic dimension of the work necessary to complete the cycle of production through to consumption: familial bonding, moral and emotional formation, acculturation, for example. But it has an element of necessity in relation to economic organisation, a strand of work running through the broader social activity.

11To say that food preparation at home involves work is only to restate the obvious. But the argument being made here is that a ‘consumption work’ perspective highlights the connection between the tasks of food preparation undertaken in the household and work undertaken by others elsewhere in food manufacture and retail, so avoiding the limitations of a domestic labour approach restricted to analysis of the household as a separate sphere. Food preparation work undertaken in the home represents a prerequisite of consumption, and completes a process that extends far beyond it.

Comparative analysis

12The UK and Taiwan differ considerably both in culinary culture and recent history of food preparation, so comparing them presents a challenge. However, a focus on ready-prepared food, especially cook-chill, or freshly prepared meals and meal components, provides a means of pinpointing the respective contributions of the consumer, retailer and manufacturer to the finished product, and how these have changed over time. The abstract theoretical concept of consumption work is deployed to unpick the extent and character of boundary shift, distinguish different trajectories and specify varying drivers of change. A summary profile for each country of the distribution of food preparation work between the domestic setting and commercial domain is followed by discussion of factors to be taken into account in order to explain the shifts in and current state of the boundary in each case.


13Home-made Sunday lunch ?

R1- My roast dinner last night, I said to my daughter and her boyfriend, ‘Well look, make sure you’re in, I’m cooking a roast tonight, I’m cooking a roast dinner and make sure you’re in.’ Well my roast dinner (laughs) … now this doesn’t often happen.

Iceland had this bit of pork, stuffed pork, frozen, on special so I’d got that out. And that came in a tin thing so that’s bunged in the oven. All I had to do was brush that with a bit of olive oil. Then it was Aunt Bessie’s roast potatoes. It was – oh I did make something, Paxo’s stuffing, I had to mix that with water and make my balls. Then it was frozen carrots and the new green, French bean things, gorgeous. They’re in a lovely pack now, I can’t remember. Gravy granules and then Iceland’s Yorkshire pudding on the top.

R2: Yes, so that’s not really all freshly made, is it?

Q: But would you describe that as making it yourself?

R1: Well, when I sat down, they said, “Oh Mum, this looks really good’, you know, and Laura sat and said to her boyfriend, Paul who’s Australian, ‘Oh my mum makes a wicked roast dinner.’ (laughter). And I said, ‘Yeah’. And, but you see, none of that was mine actually.

R3: Yeah, exactly, you made nothing there. (Focus group discussion, Colchester)

14The UK was an enthusiastic early adopter of the micro-wave oven when it first appeared in the 1980s, suggesting the likelihood of a positive future for prepared food. Over 80 per cent of households owned a microwave by the late 1980s (Cockburn and Ormrod 1993), both consolidating and facilitating the spread of prepared food. The intervening years have witnessed vast expansion of the ‘home meal replacement industry’ and all varieties of ready-made food (ready to eat, ready to heat and ready to cook). An increasing proportion of supermarket shelf space is also devoted to prepared and washed ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook chopped vegetables, salads and stir fry ingredients. This trend got underway in late 1990s and took off after 2000 when it was consolidated, differentiated, with constant renewal of meals and part-meals, especially cook-chill. Since then the UK has experienced rapid proliferation especially of quality prepared food manufactured and sold as ‘own label’ products by top-end supermarkets like Marks and Spencer, and Waitrose, while the mid-range stores like Sainsbury and Tesco also market similar goods in their ‘Taste the Difference’ or ‘Finest’ ranges (Glucksmann 2010). These foods (for example chicken breast stuffed with goat’s cheese and pesto and wrapped in Parma ham, or prawns and linguine with a tomato and red pepper relish) are cast as healthy, fresh and nutritious. They are sold raw or par-cooked, requiring ten to twenty minutes in the oven or microwave. Many are promoted as restaurant quality and as offering an alternative to eating out (‘eating out eating in’), especially since the recession of 2008. To be clear, such goods are far removed both from junk food as popularly understood as well as from earlier versions of ready-meals such as the ‘boil in the bag’ fish of the 1970s, or the frozen lasagne or spaghetti bolognese of the early 1990s.

  • 5 See note 3

15The UK population seems to have a particular predilection for this kind of ‘convenience’ food in contrast with other European countries: by 2003 the market for chilled ready-meals was worth nearly £1.4 billion, and in 2004 ready-meal consumption was far greater than in Germany or France (PIRA 2005). Against prediction, their popularity and profitability has survived the recession. Our own analysis of the official ONS expenditure Living Costs and Food Survey suggests fairly constant levels of consumption between 2001 and 2011, with some dipping around 2008/95. However, market research (Key Note 2013) found that the value of the ready meal market actually rose by 22.7 per cent between 2008 and 2012, to £1.99bn, chilled ready-meals accounting for the bulk of this growth.

16Fresh cook-chill has been a particularly dynamic sector of the UK food industry, with high rates of new product development. Fresh whole meals are differentiated into numerous ranges of national cuisines (Italian, Thai, Indian, classic French, traditional British, Mexican and so on) as well as healthy (low fat or low glycaemic index), ‘indulgent’, upmarket (‘finest’) and low market (‘value’). Notably, such categorisations differ considerably from the simpler distinctions of home cooking, such as that between weekday and weekend meals, or ‘everyday’ and ‘special’. The latest new products in 2013 were uncooked fully-prepared meals or meal components of different national cuisines or styles (eg barbecue or deli) that consumers buy separately and assemble into a meal in combinations of their own choosing or according to a recipe suggested by a celebrity chef. This trend is associated with the attempt to offer restaurant quality meals, and scramble the difference between eating in and eating out. “Consumers who are staying at home to save money, but want to recreate the restaurant experience and treat themselves to a quality meal without the hassle of cooking, are increasingly choosing chilled ready meals” (Key Note Ltd, 2013: 13).

17Clearly much of the prepared food bought by British consumers was never previously made in the home, and home cooks are extremely unlikely ever to become adept in all the cuisines with which they are now familiar. To this extent, the UK is marked by a distinctive shift to new cuisines as part of the process of marketization.

  • 6 A different basis of calculation notes a smaller reduction from 57 to 51 minutes per day but this i (...)

18The shift to buying rather than making is confirmed by the decline in time spent cooking over the last 25 years. Between 1975 and 2000 the time spent in food preparation declined from 57 to 41 minutes (Cheng et al 2007: 45). 6 Time diary research by Gershuny (2000: 165-166) reveals an overall reduction in the time allocated to food work in the home over the same period: cooking by women dropped from 100 to 58 minutes per day, and for men increased from 11 to 23 minutes per day, the time reduction for women being due both to commoditisation and a (slightly) changing domestic division of labour.

19These developments have prompted regular expressions of social and moral concern about the supposed decline of the family meal (though the evidence on this is contradictory, viz. Murcott 1997) and the loss of cooking skills, accompanied by with the widespread idea that relying on prepared foods rather than making them oneself is ‘cheating’.

20Despite strong evidence of the shift in food preparation work from household to market over the last thirty to forty years, a mismatch remains between what is on offer at major supermarkets with their many aisles devoted to cook-chill products, and what consumers admit to buying and consuming. Such goods are widely bought even if people are not inclined to say so when interviewed. A surprisingly common answer to the first question in our household survey (‘Could you describe the meal you had last night and what went into preparing it’) was that the meal in question was unrepresentative in relying on ready-prepared ingredients when ‘normally’ they would cook ‘from scratch’! The response of Denise and Yang was not atypical:

Interviewer: Could you describe the meal that you had this evening and what went into preparing that?

Denise: Oh you’ve picked a bad day!

Yang: We were short on time, and Denise there was a crash on the way home

Denise: I went to the shop and it took me about 5 minutes in the shop, then I just bunged it all in the oven and that was about 15 minutes and that is incredibly unusual for us cos we would always have fresh cooked vegetables and we’re both vegetarian so we eat really healthily, and it’s a bit of a shock that you’ve picked a day.

21And shortly later, after describing how she cooks the healthy recipes of celebrity chef Ottolenghi, Denise exclaims: “We always make everything from scratch, we don’t eat ready-made food.”

22Ready-made and processed foods are widely understood as ‘bad’ both because they are perceived as unhealthy, and because their use suggests a lack of care for the self/family, and so for some people, there is a real reluctance to admit to using them.

23Other respondents were unaware that many of the everyday products they use (eg chopped and washed fresh vegetables, cartons of soup or custard) count as ready-made. On the other hand, many also sang the praises of prepared pastry and vegetables for saving time and work: “No I don’t make pastry I just buy the pie now, why when it’s there? You know you can’t improve on some of the products that are around nowadays. I save on gas!” (Jane, Household Survey). “... I think that’s the greatest invention in the world Jusrol pastry, it just is! I don’t like making pastry it comes out alright but it’s just a faff and when you watch some of the cooks on the telly and they say “why would you make your own pastry at this point, just buy it”! It’s great we make like tarts in the summer time and stuff.” (Mary, Household survey).

24A number of explanatory factors can be suggested for this shift of food work from home to market in the UK. First, the specificity of the food retail sector and domination by the major supermarkets which have established extensive control over suppliers and manufacturers, as well as logistics and distribution, enabling them to orchestrate integrated production and distribution (Harvey et al 2002). Supermarkets are the main source of purchased food for British consumers: in 2005, 92 per cent of consumers used supermarkets for most of their food shopping (FSA 2006), and around 2010 Tesco took £1 in every £3 spent on groceries in the UK. The vast majority of cook-chill products are supermarket own-label rather than branded (Keynote 2012:11), and there is intense competition between the major players to innovate in own-label ready-made. Research inside food companies revealed not only the frequency of ‘refreshing’ the various ranges of prepared foods and the rapidity of the lead-in process but also the control exercised by supermarkets in transferring all the preparatory stages of designing and marketing new dishes to the manufacturer.

25Many ‘demand side’ factors that might contribute to the prevalence for buying rather than making meals, while not nationally specific, appear to have had a greater impact in the UK than other European countries: more women working for longer periods of their lives; changing household composition, and notably the growth of single-person households; increasing ‘busyness’ and perceptions of time pressure (e.g. Southerton 2011).

‘I have to admit we do eat a lot of processed food you know burgers.... I wouldn’t make my own. I suppose that’s because I work full time, there’s only so many hours in a day and the last thing you wanna do is spend all evening cooking and we have quite busy lives as well, things we do in the evenings several nights a week so it would then be having to fit that in as well.’ (Ann, Household survey)

26Historical and cultural factors are also significant, especially in explaining a difference between the UK and France: the weaker canon of ‘British’ cuisine (Mennell 1985) and absence of effective institutional support for culinary tradition; historical openness to culinary influence from abroad from the time of the British Empire through to contemporary global tastes (Panayi 2008, Warde 2000, 2009) together with widespread social acceptance of new cuisines, types of food and modes of preparation. Different drivers are responsible for different kinds of shift.


27Taiwan was selected to contrast with European cases, in terms of the rapidity and scale of its urbanisation, industrialisation and economic development since the 1970s, and on account of its very different culinary culture. Meals conventionally comprise four or five dishes, posing considerable demands on food preparation, especially since most is cooked and very little raw food is consumed.

28Taiwan has a national culinary tradition which champions a distinctive Taiwanese cuisine. Indeed nationhood and cuisine are connected, and cuisine is recognised as an integral component of Taiwanese national identity: specific dishes have been actively endowed with national significance to become symbols of nationhood (Chen 2010). However, perhaps unlike France, the recent growth of ready-prepared foods appears not to challenge the authenticity of ‘Taiwanese’ food, but in some respects to actually reinforce it.

29While street food has long been a feature of East Asian cuisine, a striking characteristic of Taiwanese cities is the vast number and choice of eating outlets. There are restaurants to suit every pocket, from street vendors, market stalls, and simple hole in the wall type restaurants, through family restaurants right up to expensive restaurants serving ceremonial food. The other side of this coin is the preponderance of eating out, or buying prepared food to take home, both of which are normal features of daily life for people at all points of the income spectrum. So it is common to find working class families routinely eating their evening meal in a restaurant, or professional men or women picking up two or three ready-prepared dishes on their way home from work. The distinction between eating out and buying-in seems less marked than in the UK, the two alternatives being considered fairly interchangeable.

30Eating out was not common before the 1980s but has grown enormously since then, as indicated by official statistics on the proportion of total household food expenditure spent on eating out ordinary meals. This grew steadily from 10.8 per cent in 1987, through 25.8 per cent in 1997 to 36.1 per cent in 2010, calculated from Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) annual reports of the Survey of Family Income and Expenditure, 1987-2010. Such strong demand is confirmed also by proliferation of eating-out venues (excluding vendors and stall) from 1215 in the 1970s to 46,915 by 2006, and the growth of employment growth in the food sector from 57,000 employees in food/beverage service business in 1993 to 374,000 in 2011 (ibid.)

31The growing demand for eating-out has been accompanied by another remarkable change in patterns of family eating, namely the buying in of dishes for a main meal eaten at home. According to findings of the Food Industry Research and Development Institute (FIRDI), more than 60 per cent of breakfasts were bought outside the home in 2007, and around 50 per cent of lunches (Wang and Li 2008b, 2008c). While eating a ‘family dinner’ at least five times a week remains the norm for about 65 per cent, its content has been changing considerably (Wang and Li 2008a). Among 1159 respondents, 1156 had bought ready-made food as family meals in the past month. Buying ready-prepared food to eat at home is becoming an increasingly common practice, with 19.6 per cent of households doing so once or twice every week, and 49.4 per cent adding one or more ready-made dishes to their dinners even when they claim to ‘cook’ at home (FIRDI Survey, Wang and Li 2008a).

32Unlike the UK, where supermarkets led the diffusion of prepared food, in Taiwan the convenience store, and notably the dominant 7-Eleven, has been at the forefront of a very well developed and differentiated home meals replacement industry. The number of 7-Eleven stores grew rapidly particularly from 1999 to 2007. In 1999-2000, 400 stores were established in one year, and by 2012 there were 4809 stores, selling food prepared in their own dedicated factories. Their offerings include ‘ready-to-cook’ dishes such as dumplings, but the main chilled foods are ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat products, such as meal-boxes, rice-ball, sushi, cold and hot noodles, braised dishes, and local specialities such as ‘bowl cakes made of rice’. The first ‘ready-to-eat’ hot food Taiwanese convenience stores appeared in the 1980s, its inexpensive meal-box was promoted in 2001 and successfully established 7-Eleven’s niche in the eating-out market. In 2006, they sold around 60,000,000 meal boxes in Taiwan, of an overall business volume 45 hundred million meal-boxes sold that year (Chen Yujen interview with 7-Eleven Chef Chen Jia-mo 2012). To develop and support the cook-chill business, 7-Eleven and FamilyMart, the two main convenience store brands established strong alliances and supply chains, including fresh food suppliers, food factories and logistical services.

  • 7 See note 4 above.

33The target consumers of these cook-chill foods are typically those aged between 18 to 45, and smaller households with 2 to 4 members, which accounted for 38.98 per cent of Taiwanese families in 2012, including a significant proportion of dual-earner couples who are too busy to prepare meals at home. Our interviews with consumers verified that many two-income families seldom cook, particularly if the couple was born after 1970. 7 Most actually prefer dining out to ready-made dishes, as one respondent suggests:

R11: If I cook myself, the dinner will begin at 20:00 or 20:30, it is too late for children. After eating and cleaning, it is already 21:00 and I cannot do other things, remember that I have to wake up at 7:00 or even earlier the next day! … And in fact, I have no energy to cook after a tiring day at work. Therefore take-out is the best solution. …I am sure that self-cooking is more expensive than eating out....

34In 2012, more than 41 per cent of consumers acknowledge that they often eat dinner outside, showing a significant increase since 2001 (29.6 per cent) (FIRDI Almanac of Food Consumption Survey in Taiwan 2012). Often this involved visiting shops, small restaurants or stalls providing low cost full meals, typically cafeteria dishes, meal boxes or rice and noodle shops offering several side dishes. A family dinner normally consists of two to five, and sometimes more, dishes depending on the number of diners. For those dining out or buying in, it is normal to buy a meal box consisting of rice and several side dishes. A growing number of single-person households and couples with long-distance marriages or different work schedules often dine outside or have meals alone instead of cooking at home.

35Our interviewees were more explicit than their UK counterparts about admitting they found food cooking a chore and most described a regular pattern of eating out or buying in (Chen 2013). R5: “Because cooking makes me really tired, I don't like cooking at all. I cook mostly for my husband. I don't feel guilty if I don't cook, but my husband will appear unhappy, therefore I’d better cook if he is at home.”

  • 8 Due to a “No trash on the ground” policy, in most parts of Taiwan people need to take their garbage (...)
  • 9 Amongst our interviewees, even after children are grown up, mothers often do all the cleaning, main (...)

36Our very first respondent said that the most recent meal she had cooked at home was nine months previously, and many agreed that they would choose to eat out to avoid cleaning, including dealing with leftover food and trash.8 Such routine practices, they complained, take up time and energy, preventing them from enjoying cooking. Most of those who did cook regularly at home were aged over 50; many of the younger people ate a home-cooked meal only when they visited their mothers. Even if ‘cooking’ itself can be done in thirty minutes, several stressed that it takes time to do shopping, wash ingredients, prepare meat, deal with seasonings, and clean up. Meal planning and washing up were widely regarded as tiring labour, less enjoyable than cooking. Moreover, many suggested that dining out was a more economical choice, especially when considering the cost in time, energy, and utilities, and especially when there are fewer than three people the household. Microwaves are not in wide use (43 per cent of households owned a microwave or oven in 2012) and thought to be unhealthy, and the normal cooking ranges are difficult to clean. Since dishwashers are very rare in Taiwan (less than 1 per cent ownership), washing up is also regarded as tiring housework, and again is mainly done by ‘mothers.’ 9

37The rapidly changing eating practices have had a significant impact on skills transmission. By 2012 a representative survey found that 70.2 per cent of people acknowledged that ‘my cooking skill is worse than my parents’ (ibid.). Many of our respondents under the age of forty suggested that their main reason for not cooking was lack of cooking skills, which then requires a greater investment in time, so diminishing their desire to cook. As Taiwanese parents encourage children to study languages, music, painting and sport but not to acquire household skills, children are unfamiliar with cooking. They do not learn it at school either, where the emphasis is on reading and passing examinations to the neglect of practical skills, including home economics.

38In Taiwan the picture emerges of a pretty thorough-going scrambling of eating-in and eating-out, and of home-made versus bought in. The shift of boundary between home cooked and commercially produced food has been quite dramatic since the 1970s but is fairly readily explained against the background of rapid employment change and urbanisation. The growth of food outlets and suppliers is already clear, vibrancy of the small and informal business sector, and relative lack of regulation also playing a role. Anyone can start up a food selling business, and it is a key route into self-employment, with street sellers often aspiring to become wealthy businessmen or owners of restaurant chains (Shieh 1992). Although their dreams are rarely realised, the informal economy, tradition of household production, subcontracting networks and tiny units of production (Hsiung 1996) that sustained Taiwan’s export-oriented industrialisation still remain a feature of the current economy and of many food businesses.

39Food preparation work was traditionally considered women’s work in Taiwan but this is being undermined as women’s labour force participation rate reached more than 50 per cent in 2012 (DGBAS 2013 Yearbook of Manpower Survey Statistics: 43), and 28 per cent of women were the main income providers in their household. Women employees are subject to long working hours: 44.4 per cent work in ‘clerical support’ and ‘service and sales’ where working hours are the longest, at 48 per week (compared with an already high daily average of 8.7 (ibid.: 156-157)), and this excludes time spent commuting which can be considerable. Despite traditional assumptions about women’s responsibility for food preparation, there appears to be little association between contemporary femininity and cooking prowess. The reluctance to admit to buying-made, or to feel it is ‘cheating’, which are evident from UK research, do not feature at all in Taiwan. However, there remains a marked generational difference: while ‘grandmas’ born before 1960 are likely to cook at home the same is not true of their daughters and granddaughters.

40Pressure on space and the small kitchens represent another deterrent to cooking at home for younger urban dwellers. Many respondents mentioned the small size of apartments in the big cities, with restricted kitchens and often no dining table. On the other hand, such apartments are still attractive, they say, because so many ‘just eat out every day anyway’. Since ‘cooking is not necessary’, people prefer to save more space for the living room or bedroom. However, to distinguish between housing design and eating practices as supply or factors demand would be misleading since they take shape in relation to each other.

41In Taiwan the picture emerges of a greater reliance on market-provided food commodities and erosion of the distinction between eating-in and eating-out than in the UK. It has experienced a more profound and widespread shift in the location of both preparation and consumption of food. Speedy expansion of the meals replacement industry is matched by consumers’ enthusiasm for ready prepared food of all varieties, and eating out has become normal rather than special. Importantly, these developments appear to support a distinctively Taiwanese culinary culture. Eating out Taiwanese-style is almost a limit case of the shifting boundary, restricting the work of consumers to co-ordination, selection and travelling to the point of consumption. And, of course, acquisition of the eating skills associated with East Asian food.


42The boundary between market and household labour has shifted over time in both the UK and Taiwan towards greater market input since 1970, but its movement varies in nature, degree and speed between them. While the UK has experienced a significant expansion of prepared food commodities sold for consumption at home, the transformation in Taiwan has been particularly pronounced and rapid. Market composition varies with supermarkets predominating in the UK, and convenience stores in Taiwan. Unlike many European examples, the practice of eating out in Taiwan, and the non-domestic nature of food consumption is linked with proliferation of many small craft outlets and informal businesses. Here commodification does not rely predominantly on ‘big capital’ supermarket chains. Contrasting countries with differing cultures and histories helps to determine what is nationally specific, as well as highlighting common trends. Although food commoditisation has expanded in both countries, involving a shift of labour out of the household, there are also significant differences in the two cases. In Taiwan the growth of everyday routine eating out and a reduction of eating at home, suggests a greater movement of food consumption out of the domestic sphere, while in the UK supermarket ready-prepared goods reinforce rather than challenge the notion of home as the dominant space for eating. Comparative analysis of food preparation work suggests that although a process of commoditisation has occurred in both countries, the boundaries between paid and unpaid work differ between them, the contours of socio-economic modes of provision vary, and the shifts between them occur at different temporalities speeds and in different ways, so that there is no single trajectory or direction of change that all are travelling on, nor convergence of their routes.

43However much food is ready-prepared by the time it is delivered to the consumer, work is still required in order for it to be consumed. Market and household labour remain interdependent and vary in relation to each other, in that the degree of preparedness of bought ingredients shapes how much additional work is required on the part of the consumer before they can be eaten. Consumption work thus remains an integral component of the system of food provision regardless of the degree of commoditisation. It may take a different form and be more or less onerous in different provisioning systems, but it is a necessary part of the overall configuration. The concept of consumption work enables the act of food preparation, even when conducted in the home without pay, or when its practitioners do not consider it to be labour, or work, or burdensome, to be treated analytically as an economic activity in so far as it is linked to a wider system of provision (Glucksmann 1995). The linkage of food preparation undertaken at home to that undertaken in factories, shops and so on is what constitutes it as economic, and hence as work, irrespective of the meanings attached to it by home cooks. While there is a clear conception of cooking as work in Taiwan, this may be masked elsewhere by a culture of cooking as aesthetic enjoyment or leisure activity which cast it as ‘non-work’. Many countries also exhibit a moral economy of food preparation as an act of caring for family members, demonstration of love or form of family bonding, which usually values home-made ‘from scratch’ over bought-in. Taiwan was again an exception. In this light the co-ordination required to get food and people assembled together at the same time in order to achieve commensality comprises work and moral obligation, even in Taiwan where the moral connotations are weaker.

44This article has attempted to demonstrate how the concept of consumption work is productive for comparative analysis of food preparation work. The work tasks required of consumers to make food ready to eat at home vary in different countries as do the systems of food provisioning shaping this work. Identifying the different components of food work (see above) facilitates a more nuanced analysis of what exactly is changing and how. Despite increasing reliance on market-produced food over the last forty years, UK consumers continue to engage in all four elements, but with less commitment or time input to everyday cooking and skills acquisition than in the past. Yet at the same time as the putative decline of practical cooking knowledge the shift in food preparation work from home to factory has involved an expansion of taste and introduced novelty through exposure to novel cuisines and forms of foods that would probably never have been made at home. In Taiwan, consumers’ food preparation work is more centrally focused on shopping, planning, and co-ordination, and less on cooking and cleaning up, acquiring and maintaining equipment, or attaining culinary competences.

45The contextual features suggested for each country are to be understood as conditioning factors; the consumption work of food preparation cannot simply be read off from them. Rather, there is a dynamic connecting consumption work and the wider food provisioning system of which it is a part, the specific features of one shaped by and shaping the specific features of the other. They co-develop, rather than one (a dominant provisioning system) determining the other (consumption work) ‘externally’ from the outside. In the context of a particular culinary culture, consumption work helps to explain the maintenance of the particular provisioning system as much as the other way round. Production, consumption work and consumption are connected in distinctive configurations that co-evolve with each other.

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1 ‘Societal Divisions of Labour and Consumption Work.’ The research programme explores ‘consumption work’ through comparative analysis of three probes: the domestic installation of broadband, recycling of household waste, as well as food preparation, across five countries. It was funded by a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant (DivLab 249430) for which the author is indebted.

2 Of course, while the market and household are the dominant food provisioning institutions, they are by no means the only ones.

3 I am very grateful to Dr Katy Wheeler who undertook and analysed this survey. The three locations surveyed were Essex, Shropshire and London. Katy also prepared the quantitative analysis (below) and made a major contribution to the project overall.

4 Dr Yujen Chen (Department of Taiwan Culture, Language and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei) undertook the empirical research in Taiwan which would have been impossible without her initiative, inventiveness and insights. This involved gathering, translating and interpreting documentary and empirical material. She undertook 8 expert interviews, and 14 interviews in 2013 with consumers selected to cover diverse locations, age, socio-economic and marital status. In addition, a focus group with 7 respondents discussed ‘Ready-Made Dishes and Eating-Out’. Three further Taiwanese nationals were interviewed in the UK in 2012.

5 See note 3

6 A different basis of calculation notes a smaller reduction from 57 to 51 minutes per day but this includes washing up as well as cooking (Warde et al 2007, Table 1, p. 368).

7 See note 4 above.

8 Due to a “No trash on the ground” policy, in most parts of Taiwan people need to take their garbage to a specific spot at a specific time to wait for the collection truck, personally tossing their household trash into a truck directly. For those who cannot follow the truck’s schedule, it is difficult to handle their household waste.

9 Amongst our interviewees, even after children are grown up, mothers often do all the cleaning, maintaining that children have other more important work to do.

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Electronic reference

Miriam A. Glucksmann, « Bake or buy? Comparative and theoretical perspectives on divisions of labour in food preparation work », Anthropology of food [Online], S10 | 2014, Online since 04 January 2015, connection on 15 December 2017. URL :

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About the author

Miriam A. Glucksmann

Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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