We’re being told to cook. The benefits attributed to home cooking and its corollary, the family dinner, include lower weight, better diet quality and decreased risk for kids’ smoking, drinking and using drugs. When health authorities tick off the factors leading to our obesity epidemic, the decline of home cooking is generally on the list.
Does that mean home-cooked family dinners make those good things happen? Or could it be that they’re just markers for well-functioning families that succeed in other ways? We don't have enough research to know for sure, but even if a home-cooked dinner doesn’t transform family life, there’s still one strong reason to cook: If you’re looking for an affordable, healthful meal, home cooking is your best, and sometimes your only, option. Every expert I spoke with agreed that home-cooked meals tend to be more nutritious and less calorie-dense than takeout, fast-food and restaurant meals.
Perhaps it’s that health halo that imbues the act of cooking with a kind of mystique. It’s not just the result, but also the process, that matters. In his book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Michael Pollan asks, “How many of us still do the kind of work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world that concludes . . . with such a gratifying and delicious sense of closure?” In his kitchen, “even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming something more than the sum of its ordinary parts.”
In other people’s kitchens, the magic isn’t always apparent. A recent study of home cooking, published in the journal Contexts, had researchers from North Carolina State University interview the mothers in 150 middle- and low-income households and sit in on 40 of their family dinners. Their paper, “The Joy of Cooking?” painted a picture of harried women trying to shoehorn dinner into tight days and budgets. “I just hate the kitchen,” says Samantha, a single mother of three. “Having to come up with a meal and put it together. I know I can cook, but it’s the planning of the meal, and seeing if they’re going to like it, and the mess that you make. And then, the mess afterwards. . . . If it was up to me, I wouldn’t cook.”
I suspect that most of us who cook sometimes feel like Pollan and sometimes feel like Samantha, but studies of family mealtime dynamics find a lot more Samanthas. Which leads the scientists, doctors and public health officials trying to improve the way Americans eat to focus on identifying, and then lowering, the barriers that stand between busy working parents and healthful home-cooked meals.
The focus has been on the cook. She (and it’s almost always a she) doesn’t have time, she doesn’t have skills, she doesn’t have access to fresh ingredients. But one line in “The Joy of Cooking?” jumped out at me. In all of the meals they watched, the researchers wrote, “we rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food.” And that’s when there’s an observer in the room! If you’re one of those fortunate cooks who takes pleasure in putting dinner on the table for your family every day, ask yourself how long you would last if someone complained about the food at almost every meal. Me, I’d throw in the kitchen towel before the week was out.
Why doesn’t some of the research on the barriers to home cooking take a look at the ingrates who are doing the eating, rather than the hard-working women doing the cooking? The book that describes the state of American home cooking isn’t “Cooked.” It’s Russell Hoban’s 1966 children’s classic, “The Little Brute Family”: “In the morning, Mama cooked a sand and gravel porridge, and the family snarled and grimaced as they spooned it up. No one said ‘Please.’ No one said ‘Thank you,’ and no one said ‘How delicious,’ because it was not delicious. . . . In the evening Mama served a stew of sticks and stones, and the family ate it with growls and grumbling.”
There’s not a whole lot of data on why people complain at meals, but there are two trends that might be taking a toll on the dinnertime dynamic. The first is “kid food.”
According to Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, many versions of foods, often sweet and calorie-dense, have been developed specifically for, and marketed specifically to, children. The industry recognizes kids’ “pester power,” and its goal is to get the kids to persuade the parents — sometimes by the time-tested tantrum method — to buy the food. “Although there’s not much data on how often kids get separate meals at the table,” says Fiese, “more parents are reporting that they feel pressure to prepare kids’ meals.”
Sales data for kid food — the snacks, drinks, cereals and meals targeted at children — back Fiese up. In the United States, the category is estimated at $23.2 billion annually and is growing faster than the market as a whole. That’s more than $500 for every kid under 10.
Kids have been taught that there is special food just for them, and Fiese says that 10 percent of kids will throw a tantrum if they don’t get the food they want. It’s easy to see how peace is sometimes more important than broccoli. (Kid food is a big subject, and the many issues wrapped up in it will be fodder for a future column.)
The second trend is like kid food, only for grown-ups: It’s the processed, sweet, salty, calorie-dense adult foods that are convenient, inexpensive and ubiquitous. “It’s so easy to get extremely palatable food that’s been perfectly concocted to be absolutely delicious,” says Julie Lumeng, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development. And that makes it hard for a home-cooked meal to compete. “The expectation of how tasty dinner is going to be is out of control,” she says.
Prepared and processed foods are made by people whose job it is to formulate delicious dishes. In some cases, they devote vast resources to irresistibility. (Michael Moss’s “Salt, Sugar, Fat” is an eye-opening chronicle of the process.) They don’t care whether you eat your vegetables or whether you’re getting fat. Their job is to make you like what they cook. So the hard, cold fact of it is, as Lumeng says, “the food you cook at home is often not as tasty.” No one says “how delicious” because it is not delicious.
Of course, that’s not always true. Some skilled home cooks turn out deliciousness night after night. And if you can do that, it’s sometimes difficult to see how other people can’t. As with anything else, once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard. But it’s easy for those of us who do food for a living — by growing it, cooking it or writing about it — to lose track of how tough it is for people who do other things for a living to master home cooking.
And so, for too many people too much of the time, that home-cooked meal will not please those it has been cooked for, who go into it with expectations set by the many diabolically palatable meals they have under their belt. And those people complain. And the cook loses any inclination she might have had to spend yet more time in the kitchen to get better at this, and the dinner dynamic spirals downward.
How can we reverse the trend? Jayne Fulkerson, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Child and Family Health Promotion Research, has a suggestion: Get those ingrates, particularly the kids, into the kitchen, because “kids are more likely to accept a meal they’ve had a role in preparing.” She’s working on a project that gets children involved in cooking and has found that “you can get the kids engaged in thinking of what they want to make, and pulling it off, and looking in wonder at what they just created.”
Hey, wait a minute! That sounds a lot like Michael Pollan’s description. He gets criticized for being tone-deaf to the real-life constraints of working parents, but I think it’s important to keep his version of cooking in our sights. On a good day, there is wonder in transforming humdrum ingredients into a satisfying, good-tasting meal; if kids see the magic, it’s not just a manifestation of elite privilege.
Would that strategy work for adults? Fulkerson says “parents can be as picky as kids,” and she thinks the same principle applies. So, if you’re an adult or a kid over about the age of 10 and you’re guilty of complaining, grab an apron and see whether you can’t do better.
I asked Daniel Post Senning, co-author of the 18th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette” (and great-great-grandson of that etiquette icon), about complaining at the table, a practice so brazenly discourteous that mention of its prevalence left him “slack-jawed.” When he recovered his wits, he had several suggestions for changing the family dinner dynamic. First, he seconded Fulkerson’s strategy: “If you’re not participating in the process, you don’t always have standing to offer a critique,” he says. “Offer to participate in a meaningful way: planning and shopping, if not cooking.”
And even then, be careful. “The compliment sandwich — praise, critique, praise — would be appropriate. There’s always something you can thank someone for when they’ve worked on your behalf.” Also, “have a solution.” Don’t care for creamed spinach? Volunteer to try roasting cauliflower.
What you don’t do when someone — probably someone you love — has made a meal for you is gripe about the food at the table. Just don’t.
The Little Brute Family stumbles through a grim and joyless life eating sticks and stones until, one day, Baby Brute finds a daisy, and the daisy gives him a good feeling. That evening, at supper, “when his bowl was filled with stew he said, ‘Thank you.’ ” From that moment, the good feeling catches on. “When Papa Brute went out for sticks and stones the next day, he found wild berries, salad greens, and honey, and he brought them home instead. At supper, everyone said ‘How delicious!’ because it was delicious.”
Okay, “The Little Brute Family” is a fable, and decreeing that, from this day forth, no one shall complain about dinner won’t magically turn the home-cooking trend around. But, unlike most interventions, it doesn’t cost us anything. And if home cooking is something worth encouraging, and I think it is, we all need to take a tip from Baby Brute. When someone cooks a meal for you, whether or not you found your daisy, here’s an appropriate thing to say: Thank you.
Haspel farms oysters on Cape Cod and writes about food and science. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel.