Never before has a generation known so much about food and so little about cooking. Is the application of heat to raw ingredients due to join the list of other eccentric, time-consuming hobbies (dry-stone walling, tying your own flies)? Hester Lacey finds out
TODAY'S twenty and thirtysomethings are probably amongst the most food-literate generation there has ever been. They can knowledgeably debate the merits of River Cafe rustic Italian versus Sugar Club Pacific Rim and know their hollandaise from their bouillabaisse at 50 paces. But actually rolling their sleeves up and getting into the kitchen is quite another matter.

One heavy blow for home cooking is that younger women in particular don't necessarily see the kitchen as their natural habitat. "I don't take any pleasure in setting aside the time to cook," says Caroline, 25. "I get home late, half past seven or eight o'clock, I'm tired, I want to sit down with a glass of wine. My cupboard is stocked with fresh pasta and sauces; I want something that will be ready in five minutes, not half an hour. I don't go to dinner parties, my friends simply don't have them. I prefer to meet friends somewhere central and eat out. Cooking isn't a pleasure - eating is."

She is not the only one to think this way. Surveys carried out over the last few years have shown an increasing reluctance to cook from scratch. Even though we love to drool over the glossy cookbooks that top the best- seller lists, consumption of convenience meals in Britain doubled between 1992 and 1997, and 95 per cent of 1,000 British household cooks in a survey commissioned last year admitted taking short cuts and using frozen ready- made meals. The most recent survey, carried out earlier this year by the Good Food Foundation, has shown that most eight to 14-year-olds' culinary skills go no further than adding cereal to milk or making a sandwich; the most adventurous might manage to heat a pizza.

This incompetence in the kitchen is a matter of concern to some of our most eminent foodies. "Children no longer learn to cook at mother's knee. Mother's knee is out working," warns Prue Leith, a trustee of the Good Food Foundation. "Few learn to cook at school, though there are shining exceptions. School food rooms and kitchens have been sacrificed for computer rooms."

Plans are afoot to tempt the reluctant into the kitchen. Delia Smith is bringing out a new book in the autumn, How To Cook, with an accompanying television series on the nitty-gritty of poaching eggs and the like. Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson also have similar back-to-basics works in the pipeline. First off the block is Hattie Ellis, with her new book Mood Food: Strategies for Contemporary Cooking and Entertaining (Headline pounds 14.99). Mood Food is a sparky volume, written by a young cook for young cooks, crammed with simple recipes that produce deceptively luxurious results. "I was trying to write in such a way that the recipes would suit how people live and cook today," says Hattie Ellis. "Over a busy week you want something on the table quickly, with not too many pans to wash; over the weekend you have more time, but you want to enjoy meals, not have cooking as one more exhausting task." Home-made, she insists, is not necessarily more effort. "Making something simple from proper ingredients is actually less work than buying packets." Cooking today, she says, has changed in a quite fundamental way. Elaborate techniques aren't strictly necessary. "There are ways of being a good cook without cheating too far. Good ingredients are readily available, and you don't have to do too much to them; things like air-dried ham, mango, sweet potatoes, luscious mascarpone, good bread."

Her watchword is making life easier. All the ingredients for Mood Food dishes like cod in leek and cider sauce, mulled lamb or ginger and pear trifle are readily available from supermarkets (there is also an entire menu that can be prepared from the offerings of the direst corner shop at a pinch). The recipes are divided up to suit different occasions, including ones when an intimidating guest is expected, or ones when there is plenty of time for a long indulgent supper. Dinner party suggestions get most of the preparation out of the way in advance, to avoid "that awful time when you've cooked so much you're withered with resentment," says Hattie Ellis, who says cheerfully that she is "selfishly into enjoying the evening" even if she is doing the food.

Kathrin Elliott, who works long hours as a manager and is in her thirties, was enthusiastic about the recipe she tried last week: meatballs in rich tomato sauce. "It was truly easy, and it worked and it looked quite impressive," she says. In the past, she admits, she has given in and sneaked to her local deli. "Just for starters and puddings, though. And I am always quite honest about it. Having people round is always a bit of a trial for me; I get terribly worked up, plan something over-elaborate and have a day of misery beforehand. It's because I don't get enough practice."

But while the thirtysomethings clutch gratefully at anything that will lighten the load, are the twentysomethings already a lost cause? Maggie, 26, is not tempted. "I hate cooking, it's really boring. Most nights I eat out with my friends; you can go to very cheap places and afford it every evening. My parents had a very traditional marriage and my father never cooked; he probably couldn't even identify the cooker. I think I'm reacting against that; I never cook. When I buy food it just goes off in the fridge."

Anna Grower, 28, says her friends cook if they like it and don't bother if they don't. "You don't find that people who know that they are terrible cooks or won't have time feel obliged to make a frantic effort to impress people at any cost. You can produce a great meal from Sainsbury's and no-one will bat an eyelid. If it was something at quite short notice, or people just dropping in, then I wouldn't hesitate to use ready-prepared food. After all, what makes a dinner party successful is not the food, it's the company." Imogen, 23, says that she is out every evening straight from work and the only thing she can cook is pasta with tomato sauce and a few vegetables. "It doesn't bother me at all that I just can't do it."

Some thirtysomethings are equally insouciant. Kate Clements admits without a blush that she buys in shamelessly. "I work hard and don't want to spend hours at the weekend peeling potatoes. I am the original can't-cook-won't- cook. I just want something I can unwrap and bung in the oven." Occasionally, she says, her guests have been served omelettes and cheese, or even take- away pizza. "But not grotty pizza. Luckily we have a very up-market pizzeria round the corner. No-one's ever complained and if they did I wouldn't care. After all, I like to presume it's me they've come to see, not my souffles they've come to criticise."

Hattie Ellis can't agree. "If your guests have made the effort, travelled to see you with a nice bottle of wine, and find ready-made food on the table, it's not really treating them." Nevertheless she is confident that the dinner party will never die - that in fact it is simply evolving into a simpler and more enjoyable form. "Home entertainment has relaxed," she says. "Dinner parties used to be a real showcase for your home and lifestyle, but that kind of `boss-to-dinner' nightmare has died a death - or at least I hope so. But inviting people round to eat and cooking for them is part of the art of life."