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Lower your standards for family meals

ILLUSTRATION: Last-minute lunchThe dinner hour is one of the most fraught times of day for families. As if anyone couldn’t tell you that, there’s a new study by a trio of sociologists to prove it.

“The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint. Romantic depictions of cooking assume that everyone has a home, that family members are home eating at the same time, and that kitchens and dining spaces are equipped and safe. This is not necessarily the case for the families we met,” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton wrote in a recent edition of Contexts, a quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. “Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.”

Don’t I know it. In my house, I am in charge of meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation, and my husband gets cleanup duty. I cook almost every night. But I’ve gotten pretty efficient at it and it doesn’t feel onerous to me.  Buying prepared foods and eating at restaurants costs too much, and I believe home-prepared food tastes better and is more healthful.

I know not everyone shares my outlook. After all, I work part-time and don’t feel as rushed as the moms who arrive home from a full day of work straight into the jaws of the mealtime crunch.

I was reminded how important it is to have realistic expectations about mealtime in the face of all the demands families have on their time. A couple of weeks ago, I got stuck at work until 8 p.m. That left my husband, as the first one home, to make dinner. No problem. He just fixed some boxed macaroni and cheese. My sons thought it was the best dinner ever.

I might fix that for lunch, but never dinner. But maybe I should. Maybe we should all lower our standards a bit to find more enjoyment in the family meal.

As the sociologists pointed out in their article, “The Joy of Cooking?,” when women do pour effort into preparing meals to meet some elusive and ever-escalating standard, the very people they are trying to please bellyache.

“We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the sociologists wrote.

Even though the authors point fingers at food columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman, among others, for advocating a return to the kitchen, Bittman himself cautions against setting ridiculously high standards for dinner.

“Making food a performance, as entertaining as that can be from our seats in the grandstand, has had a damaging effect on our relationship to cooking. In a land of million-dollar kitchens, Himalayan pink salt, dragonfruit, truffle butter and Wagyu skirt steak, most of us feel like outsiders–and as a result, we cook less than we ever have,” Bittman wrote in a recent edition of Time. “To get comfortable in the kitchen, pare down your ambitions, ease up on your expectations and start with something manageable that you will actually enjoy eating.”

Low-income women may have that figured out better than middle-class ones. Both sets worried about how much they spent on food. Poorer women just wanted to get their families fed, while middle-class women fussed about an elusive standard of purity. They told the researchers they made tradeoffs in order to save money, buying less healthful processed food or fewer organic items. “For low-income mothers, the tradeoffs are starker: they skipped meals, or spent long hours in line at food pantries or applying for assistance,” according to the study. “Many of the poor mothers we met also lacked reliable transportation, and therefore typically shopped just once a month.”

Yet “the mothers we met who were barely paying the bills routinely cooked – contrary to the  stereotype that poor families mainly eat fast food – because it was more economical,” the sociologists wrote.

Bittman offered advice that’s helpful across income brackets: “Buy what you can afford, and cook it yourself. Rice, beans, bacon, salad, bread – few things are cheaper than that. … And to save money and still eat well you don’t need local, organic ingredients; all you need is real food.”