Do homes without kitchens mark the end of human civilization?

OPINION: Probably not. But the rising trend does say a lot about capitalism, hopelessness, priorities — and how we eat now
By Corey Mintz - Published on Aug 13, 2019
a mouse in a tiny kitchen
Tiny kitchens are increasingly common in new apartment and home builds. (iStock.com/sbossert)

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I had just gotten married and was shopping for a home the first time I saw a stovette. It was right next to a fridgette in what could only be called the kitchenette — a small-scale replica of a human kitchen — in a two-bedroom apartment. They looked like the familiar appliances, but they’d been scaled down closer to dollhouse size. Why, I asked my agent, hadn’t the builders put a regular-sized oven in the unit, one that could fit a baking tray? The kitchen/living room was open concept, and there was room for it.

It makes the space look bigger, he said, and they’re targeting a demographic that doesn’t cook. Hey, not everyone likes cooking. And no one is obligated to do it.

But then the trend progressed: as the Toronto Star recently reported, in this downtown building, not one of the 162 units has a stove.

There’s a chicken-and-egg scenario playing out here. Maybe people don’t cook and therefore don’t want to waste their real-estate dollars on a kitchen. Or maybe they don’t cook because they can’t afford a kitchen. But it adds up to the same thing: a dependence on restaurants, delivery, and convenience foods. We still have to eat. And eating out or ordering in is expensive.

Writing about restaurants and delivery apps, I’m always astonished by how many meals people eat out. I know people who earn about what I do and order lunch through apps five times a week. I understand that most of us are too busy to cook. What I struggle with is how non-rich people afford it.

I asked around and got a variety of interesting answers:

  • No amount of saving by eating at home will ever add up to a down payment
  • A lack of cooking, budgeting, planning, and shopping skills makes it difficult to run a cost-effective, healthy home kitchen
  • When dining is also your hobby and entertainment, you just accept that it’s a large part of your budget
  • Groceries frequently come in too-large formats and/or wasteful packaging
  • Pensions are unreliable, and home ownership is impossible, so why not spend money now?

Any of these points can be argued. But they are all sincere reasons. That last one, and the nihilism inherent in it, scares me.

The trend, however, doesn’t bother Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University who sends out an email newsletter in which he analyzes food-economic topics. He tends to take a libertarian-light approach — sample headings include “In defense of ‘ultra-processed’ foods,” “Lab-grown meat is worthless, unless consumers see a benefit,” and “Canada’s Food Guide: A new dish, with a dash of condescension.” And, while I don’t often agree with him, Charlebois usually points out an angle I hadn’t considered. In a recent newsletter, which was published in the Globe and Mail as an opinion column, he tries to put a positive spin on our urban housing crisis.

“Younger workers have a different sense of how real estate serves them,” writes Charlebois. “It’s a place you visit between activities.”

While I don’t believe that everyone wants or needs a stove — certainly not one big enough to cook a turkey — it’s sad to see the transformation of homes into the equivalent of high-school lockers presented as a response to modern tastes.

Charlebois quotes a UBS report that predicts that the market for digital food delivery and meal kits will increase tenfold by 2030. He predicts that this growth, along with the development of new delivery methods, will reduce prices, “making home cooking the more expensive option, especially for people living alone.”

I don’t see how we can reasonably predict what the market cap will be 11 years from now, considering the sector barely existed five years ago. And I’m not a believer in the notion that growth or competition automatically results in lower consumer prices, particularly as we’re talking about an industry that is still deeply unprofitable.

But I get it. Economists are always going to espouse the belief that market forces solve problems rather than create them. And I’m always going to be a Chicken Little, squawking that the sky is falling every time that something about our way of life changes. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

Homes without kitchens are not the end of human civilization. But they do mark a shift.

Not everyone needs a kitchen in their first apartment. It’s not an efficient use of space or energy. While it is always cheaper to cook at home than to have someone else cook for you, it’s much harder to avoid waste when cooking for one.

And, though we love our autonomy, it’s probably a lot more practical for single-occupancy apartments to share kitchen space. One large kitchen on a floor with a dozen small apartments makes a lot more sense than 10 stoves, 10 fridges and all that counter space that people might not be using. But that’s a dorm room I’m describing — or a kibbutz. Not our beloved free-market capitalism, which works so well that young people can’t afford to live as well as their parents and don’t believe there is a future worth saving for.

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