When the Stage Manager introduces Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb in Act 2 of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play, “Our Town,” he says, “I don’t have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies…cooked three meals a day — one of ’em for 20 years, the other one for 40 — and never a summer vacation.”
Or a nervous breakdown, either, he adds, so I guess all that home cooking was not a burden for them. But modern moms, especially those who work outside of the home, see it differently, according to sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton at North Carolina State University. They argue that preparing dinner (or supper or whatever you call the evening meal) may not be worth it, after interviewing 150 mothers across economic lines and spending 250 hours observing a dozen families in-depth.
“The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal,” the three wrote in “Contexts,” a publication of the American Sociological Association. “Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held….Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.”
I have mixed feelings on this one, and yes, I cook nearly every evening.
My first reaction — and one shared by several friends: Why would anyone be surprised that this is a burden? Of course cooking a meal every single evening can become an onerous chore at times, especially for working moms. I’m lucky (I think) to work at home.
The mom who walks in the door from work at 6? She’s tired and hungry. So are her kids. “I remember as a working mom dragging my kids to Arby’s after picking them up from day-care and kindergarten because I was just too tired to cook when my husband was out of town,” Anne Krueger, a writer and editor in Atlanta, told me.
“I’d let them watch ‘The Simpsons’ in Arby’s and pray that nobody I knew would see me because I was the editor-in-chief of ‘Parenting’ magazine and should have been ‘doing better.’ Which is ridiculous, because we’re all doing the best we can.”
I used to write on health, including nutritional issues, and I did the same thing — except substitute McDonald’s or Wendy’s for Arby’s on Wednesday nights when my husband was taking a class and didn’t eat dinner at home.
But there’s guilt when I don’t play Betty Crocker. I grew up eating home-cooked dinners with all of us gathered around the kitchen table. My mom still makes wonderful meals.
Of course, meal prep doesn’t have to be mom’s job.
Dean Treese, a truck driver based in Vincennes, Ind. and a high school classmate of mine, took over the cooking duties when his kids were growing up because his wife wasn’t interested. “I’d spend the whole day away playing soldier (active duty Army) and then come home to the good part of life — cooking supper for the kids,” he told me.
“They’d sit at the table getting homework done, and we’d talking about the day, about the sports schedules, about the neighbors, about Abba and TLC, while I cooked. We’d sit down together at the table and eat together. We’d watch a couple of stupid shows on TV, straighten up the house together, and get ready to do it all over again the next day.”
He did the menu planning, the grocery shopping and the dishes. “It wasn’t always ‘easy.’ Not always ‘fun.’ But always the best part of my day and never a burden.”
I like his attitude.
He makes the rest of look awfully whiny, though. So why are we complaining?
It’s not the cooking as much as it is the planning that makes me dread the 5 o’clock hour (sorry Jimmy Buffett). When I’m organized enough to make these decisions the night before, or in the morning, and take advantage of the two Crock Pots I own, I feel better about dinner.
The other issue for many of us: Picky eaters. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” Bowen and her co-authors wrote.
Those picky eaters aren’t limited to kids, by the way. Husbands can have palates just as difficult to please. Mine dislikes many vegetables and avoids carbs like potatoes and rice. My daughter’s gluten-intolerant but loves vegetables (as do I) and dislikes meat. My teenage son is a carnivore. He hates vegetables and combinations of foods (goodbye casseroles and stews).
For those who will comment, “When I was a kid, I ate what my parents put in front of me or I went hungry and that’s how I raised my children.” Well, I haven’t wanted to turn mealtimes into battlegrounds. And who can afford to waste food?
My kids, and my husband, all know how to cook. (Kudos to Boy Scouts for requiring the cooking merit badge for Eagle Scouts. Maybe Common Core should include home economics?) If they don’t like what I fix, they’re capable of finding something else to eat. But I want to cook meals that all of will enjoy. I want our dinnertime to be pleasant for everyone.
“When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers,” writes Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian, family therapist and expert on feeding children.
Eating dinner together just seems like an inherent part of a healthy family — healthy both physically and emotionally. Research backs this up. Kids who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week do better in school. They have higher self-esteem. They’re less likely to smoke, drink or abuse drugs. They’re less likely to be overweight or to suffer from eating disorders. They may even be able to handle the effects of cyber-bullying better, according a study published Sept. 1 in JAMA Pediatrics.
To help families with dinner is the Family Dinner Project, a grassroots movement out of Cambridge, Mass., which offers ideas from conversation starters with teenagers to recipes on its Web site.
But the problems aren’t so easy to solve for low-income families, Bowen and her associates found. Some live in hotels or apartments without adequate cooking facilities. Some battle pests like ants, mice and rats. And some have transportation issues that make shopping a hassle. Not to mention the cost of groceries these days, especially fresh produce and meat.
Bowen and her fellow researchers offer a radical suggestion: Take home-cooking out of the home.
“How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks?” they write. “Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? 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.”
Maybe the issue of dinner doesn’t seem like an earth-shaking issue, but what we eat affects our health and that, in turn, has an impact on medical costs, a burden — like it or not — we all share.