This was our family dinner last week: I poured some leftover soup into a mug, heated it in the microwave, tossed a $20 bill at my kids and told them to order pizza or Thai food, and raced out the door to get to an evening event, drinking the soup in the car. My husband, too, was at an evening work event. I don’t know what he ate.
According to a host of social science research, this is not only undesirable parenting behavior, but could very well put our kids at risk. Home-cooked family meals, lovingly prepared from scratch, usually by Mom, and joyously eaten together have been associated with a panoply of goodness for children: higher academic achievement and test scores, lower rates of obesity, depression, risky behavior and substance abuse and all-around happier and healthier lives.
But what if the vaunted family dinner isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if, instead of bringing families together, the time, money and pressure to meal plan, shop, cook, satisfy picky eaters, get everyone around the table at the same time when schedules are chaotic and unpredictable is creating so much stress that it’s tearing families – or at least Mom – apart?
That’s an argument that Sinikka Elliott, a sociologist at North Carolina State University, makes in a new study, “The Joy of Cooking?” in the current American Sociological Association magazine, Contexts.
And man, has she taken a wallop for it. As if she and her co-authors just butchered and roasted a sacred cow and served it up on a platter.
Elliott and her co-authors, Sarah Bowen and Joslyn Brenton, came to the conclusion that family dinners are often “anxiety meals” after interviewing 150 low-income and middle class mothers or grandmothers and closely observing 12 working class families for a year as part of an ongoing research project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The researchers wanted to know how busy families were living up the current mania to “cook like grandma,” in the words of foodie Michael Pollan, from scratch, using fresh ingredients. “We were interested in how this ideal family dinner is really sold as a solution to a lot of things, including childhood and adult obesity,” Elliott said, “and that if we could all just get around the dinner table at night, that’s going to fix family structure and cohesion.”
Instead, Elliott and her co-authors found that the whole process of cooking family dinner every night is fraught, tense and often unpleasant – hardly the stuff of family bonding.
Our nostalgia for what we think of as the ideal – beaproned Mom lovingly serving up potroast and organic greens from the garden to an adoring family patiently waiting with napkins in laps – is so out of synch with the real lives of most families, she argues, that trying to live up to it is making us all crazy. And maybe finding less stressful alternatives, like communal suppers, community kitchens, mobile markets, or meals prepared at schools that could be sent home with kids, wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
“The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held,” the researchers write. “Our conversations with mothers of young children show us that this emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today.”
Some critics have called Elliott a whiney feminist who wants to justify women not cooking. Farmer and food writer Joel Salatin had this to say:
With slow cookers, indoor plumbing, timed-bake and refrigerators, today’s techno-enabled kitchens allow busy people to cook from scratch and eat with integrity far easier than during Great Grandma’s time. She had to fetch water from the spring, split stove wood, start a fire and churn the butter and she still managed to feed a large family very well. If our generation can’t do at least as well with our 40-hour work week and kitchen tech, then we deserve to eat adulterated pseudo food that sends us to an early grave. I don’t know that anyone’s children deserve this, however.
And other writers, quite rightly, have pointed out that, inflexible work cultures, overscheduled kids, and, for low-income families especially, unpredictable schedules, low wages, unstable jobs and the lack of places close by to shop for good food are the real culprits behind so much family dinner stress.
Stephanie Coontz, a writer and historian at Evergreen State College who has studied the history of families, said that nostalgia for the family dinner is strong, and questioning the notion that it’s the glue that binds families together really touches a nerve. “Yet a lot of that nostalgia ignores the fact that many of those 1950s family dinners were less like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and more like “Mad Men’ with the kids eating at a different table, the TV on, or sometimes the mother and father fighting,” she said.
The current eruption over the American family dinner tradition is confusing two things: quality food and quality time, she said. And while both are important, they’re not the same.
“There are lots of ways to have quality family time. It doesn’t have to be around the dinner table,” she said. “Of all the research done on families, one thing is clear: there is no make or break family structure or family routine. It’s the overall environment that matters. So if you don’t have any other interactions with kids that are good, then losing the family meal is a real problem. But there are other ways to have those good interactions.”
Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University who studies happiness, social anxiety and character strengths, said what children really need in order to grow is unconditional love, a secure base, a safe haven and time to play on their own. “Don’t tie yourself to a family dinner or any rigid pressure that a particular activity is necessary for your kids’ personal growth,” he said. “And know your parent-child relationship is not so fragile that missed dinners will hurt it.”
As for all the purported benefits to children that only family dinners can bring? Happier, healthier kids? Elliott said she’s skeptical of the research. “It’s not that we’re against cooking,” she said. “But is it the family meal? Or is it something else about that coming together that is good for family health?”
Indeed, emerging research suggests it may be something else. Daniel Miller, a professor of social work at Boston University and his co-authors studied the family breakfast and dinner habits of 21,400 children between the ages of 5 and 15. They found no significant link between the frequency of family meals and positive academic or behavioral outcomes for kids, which they called a “novel” finding.
Likewise, in a study of the family meal habits of about 18,000 children, researchers at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota found that the quality of family relationships, not whether they ate home-cooked food around a table at the same time, was associated with better child outcomes.
Jennifer Folsom is a busy, middle-class mother of three who lives in Fairfax, Virginia and works full-time. For years, racing home from work, juggling child care, homework, after school activities and trying to throw together something nutritious for dinner felt more than a little oppressive.
“It felt like everyday at 4:30, I was sitting two six-year-old boys down to try to do homework, which is ridiculous, they wanted a snack and dinner at the same time. I had a one and a half year old, whiny and cranky, just up from a nap. I had to cook dinner and by 6 pm, get the boys to soccer practice,” she said. “Dinner wasn’t happening. We were eating granola bars. Everybody was yelling. It was not enjoyable.”
With a background in process improvement, Folsom said she figured there had to be a better way. “I got to thinking: I’m doing the same thing every night, and so is everyone around me.”
Thus was born the Bus Stop Meal Swap with four other families of five. Each family takes one night and cooks for 20 people. The meals are delivered every afternoon at 4:30 at the school bus stop by mothers, fathers, nannies or babysitters. Folsom now owns four crockpots and cooks – dairy, gluten and shrimp-free – only on Tuesdays. “It works brilliantly,” Folsom said. “It’s solved a lot of problems for all of us.”
While the family enjoys sitting down and sharing a meal together, it’s not the meal that brings them close as a family. Indeed, when she and her husband’s work schedules were out of synch, they got into the habit of sharing a big family breakfast everyday. Other families, Folsom said, have special family reading time. “The point is,” she said, “If you’re not going to do a family meal, what is that other thing you’re going to do that brings you together? That’s what matters.”
Which makes me feel an awful lot better about our next family dinner last week: take-out from Chipotle. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, home-cooked family dinner, and have often wished, with a twinge of guilt, that I had more time, energy and money to make one every night. But the truth is, my husband, Tom, has cooked dinner for years. He grills, makes pasta, throws leftovers on the counter, and I am eternally grateful.
When it’s time for dinner, he calls us all to the table with a booming, tongue-in-cheek, “Come and eat so you won’t do drugs!”
I brought the Chipotle burritos home after an unusually late Back to School Night at our daughter’s school. Tom, who’d had another unusually late night at work, lit candles. The kids were hungry enough to stop their bickering and pour glasses of water for everyone. I don’t think we even used plates. But when I think back on that night, it’s not the food that I recall. It’s how wonderful it felt to sit around the kitchen table, talking and laughing, until it was time to go to bed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the university that Sinikka Elliott is associated with.