According to the common nutritional wisdom, families who sit down together for home-cooked meals tend to be both healthier and happier, and research for the most part supports that this is true.
But when a group of sociologists decided to study what it really takes to prepare a family dinner, they learned that all is not well in the kitchen. In fact, moms reported feeling pressured to live up to unrealistic ideals and many felt the benefits of home-prepared food weren’t worth the hassle.
Utopia, meet Real Life.
Food gurus may romanticize about the love and skill that goes into preparing a meal and the appreciation with which it’s eaten, but “they fail to see all of the invisible labor that goes into planning, making and coordinating family meals, ” the researchers concluded. “Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.”
For their study, aptly titled “The Joy of Cooking?”, they spent a year and a half conducting in-depth interviews with a social and economic cross-section of 150 black, white and Latina mothers. They also spent more than 250 hours observing poor and working-class families as they shopped for groceries, cooked and ate meals.
They found mothers were strapped for time, sometimes working two jobs and unpredictable hours to make ends meet and with little energy left over to plan a meal, prepare it and clean up the kitchen afterwards while their children clamored for attention. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t cook,” one mother bluntly told the researchers.
They discovered that in most of the poorer households they observed, mothers routinely did their own cooking to save money. But these women often were disadvantaged by kitchens that were too small and inadequately equipped – not enough counter space, a shortage of pots and pans, lack of sharp knives and cutting boards, and so on. One family living in a motel room prepared all their meals in a microwave and washed their dishes in the bathroom sink.
A common barrier was the cost of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, typical ingredients of a healthy meal. Some of the mothers didn’t have reliable transportation so they only shopped for groceries once a month, which limited the amount of fresh produce they could buy. Even in the middle-class households, moms fretted that the cost of quality food forced them to buy more processed foods and less organic food than they wished.
The final straw: family members who fussed, picked at the food or refused to eat what was served. The researchers rarely observed a family meal during which no one complained. In many of the low-income homes, moms resorted to making the same foods over and over rather than try something new that might be rejected and go to waste. For middle-class moms, the pressure to put healthy, balanced meals on the table often led to considerable anxiety over what they cooked and served.
Despite all this, is it possible for families to consistently prepare good meals at home and actually enjoy the experience instead of viewing it as a chore? Of course it is. But for many households, getting there clearly will be a slog.
When the reality surrounding the home-cooked meal is often at odds with the ideal, why then do food system reformers insist that the revolution needs to happen in the household kitchen? the researchers wonder.
They call the emerging standard for the home-cooked meal “a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy, home-cooked meal on women.”
Perhaps we need more options for feeding families, such as introducing healthy food trucks or monthly town suppers, or getting schools and workplaces involved in sharing healthy lunches, they suggest. “Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.”