By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombroski.
There’s so much pressure that goes into putting food on the family dinner table, especially for a healthy, wholesome, home-cooked meal. So much so that the authors of the recent study “The Joy of Cooking?” consider the moralistic mealtime ideal to be an “elite foodie standpoint.”
Three North Carolina State University researchers spent a year and a half interviewing 150 mothers of different races and classes. They also took more than 250 hours to observe ethnographic tendencies exhibited by a dozen poor and working-class families.
During this time, they noted a variety of stressful situations that are commonly overlooked when proponents of home-cooking and proper mothering call for family dinners: lack of reliable transportation, all members being home at the same time, access to nutritious resources, space to cook, and overall finances.
Replete with anecdotal evidence, “The Joy of Cooking?” highlights an array of taxing real-life domestic scenes by illustrating the personal accounts of mothers struggling to cook. A middle class mother might feel flustered trying to put ingredients together after work; a working class mother doesn’t know what hours tomorrow’s shift at a fast-food restaurant will be until the night before; a poor mother resides in a dire kitchen-less motel room that’s infested with insects.
In these true-to-life scenarios, is selflessly slaving over the kitchen worth it for the household as a whole?
“We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the researchers write.
The study doesn’t really portray many positive or rewarding domestic dinner situations except for select mothers talking about how preparing food saves them money when they can’t afford to eat out (however stressful the former option is). Examples of upper class mothers or ones being satisfied with their dinner efforts aren’t apparent either.
However, in the air of social pressure, fetishization of holistic home food, and myriad of studies about how consistent family dinners combat children’s obesity, eating disorders, malnutrition, or poor behavioral tendencies, maybe these researchers considered including the success stories to be unnecessary.
The study does not offer onsite photographs that accompany these vivid written descriptions, but rather, black-and-white mid-century images that depict white mothers smiling in their clean, spacious suburban kitchens, dressed prim and proper with pumps and aprons. While contemporary society may criticize such enforced sexist norms from that bygone era, the authors for this new study feel compelled to contradict the perseverance of “foodie intellectuals” who strive for large-scale back-to-the-kitchen principles.
Yes, health-conscious Michelle Obama advocates for consistent family dinners, but should the First Lady serve as the country’s maternal authority on everyone’s home situation? Yes, it’s bad to eat processed industrial foods and skip out on sacred family time, but is it stuck up to criticize parents for, as Dr. Mark Hyman suggests, not providing “whole, local; fresh; unadulterated; unprocessed; and chemical-, hormone- and antibiotic-free food” that lacks trans fat and high fructose corn syrup? Hyman, a physician, nutritionist, and diet author, went on in his Huffington Post article to call for planting a garden, plus starting a compost bucket, suggestions that are likely great for the mind, body and soul, but take substantial commitment (and require certain resources that may be unattainable to some).
The researchers of “The Joy of Cooking?” suggest, in the study’s conclusion, to think creatively outside the kitchen. Some alternatives could be having schools offer to-go meals for families to heat at home, or reviving monthly town suppers.
Multi-family efforts are another option. A Washington Post article that examines “The Joy of Cooking?” exemplifies a Virginia mother of three who felt stressed out cooking a nutritious dinner for her kids while balancing homework help with dropping the boys off at soccer when she had a baby to tend to–all when she returned home from work.
This woman realized several other families around her were dealing with similar juggles so they decided to bind together and form the Bus Stop Meal Swap. One family, each weekday, cooks for 20 people, and has an adult deliver provisions to their kids’ bus stop at the end of the school day.
Sinikka Elliot, one of the study’s researchers, told The Washington Post that they are not “against cooking.” Instead, they are proposing that we reevaluate the standards of family bonding with the emphasis on the shared meal.
They’re not the first ones to argue that idea. Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist who authored The Secrets of Happy Families, professed that there are plenty of other ways for families to share time that don’t necessarily revolve around dinner. They can share breakfast instead, make an effort to meaningfully communicate in the car, or have elders narrate their kin’s history to help foster a cohesive sense of belonging.
As always, we live in a society where our younger members need to be nourished and interacted with for their proper development. In more recent years, though, we’ve evolved into a society where most children are raised by parents who work outside the home, including the mothers who still bear the burden of being told to cook dinner. Perhaps we should consciously weigh both factors when scaling families’ commitment to eating well.