The internet is rife with “simple,” budget-friendly cooking tips. As a food writer, I’ve certainly endorsed things like bulk-buying grains, roasting sheet pan after sheet pan of vegetables on a slow Sunday afternoon, and relying on prepared foods like rotisserie chicken when you just don’t have time to cook. The (mostly white, mostly middle-class) food reformers who sell the idea that a return to home cooking will solve many of our health problems insist that healthy, budget-friendly cooking is absolutely in reach for everyone, so long as you plan, prioritize and make time.
The often overlooked reality is that it’s actually not simple for many people, especially low-income parents and other caregivers. Obstacles like unpredictable shift work, unreliable appliances, lack of easy access to fresh food and the very high expectations of modern parenting can make budget cooking (and thus, any fresh home cooking) downright unreachable. For those folks, there’s simply not enough time to prep inexpensive staples from scratch, and not enough money for time-saving market solutions afforded to others.
“A lot of cooking advice, even budget cooking advice, makes assumptions about what a person’s life and home looks like.”
In March, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott published a book, “Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It,” based on a five-year observational study to better understand the challenges of feeding a family. The study focused on about 120 low-income mothers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds living in central North Carolina. The researchers spent time in the women’s homes and followed them on trips to grocery stores and to social service organizations that provide food for families with low incomes.
“Even ‘chop a bunch of vegetables’ assumes that you have a sharp knife, a cutting board, a working oven. And a lot of the recipes assume bigger things, like having a Crock Pot or other specialized equipment.”- Sarah Bowen, sociologist
The researchers chose to focus on mothers for a reason: “It’s women that are mostly tasked with feeding families,” Brenton told HuffPost.
Research backs this up: A 2018 study published in Nutrition Journal found that while women spend nearly an hour a day in the kitchen, men spend just 20 minutes. This is especially problematic when you take into account that in 2018, 76% of women worked outside the home in addition to being the primary homemakers. Still, it’s worth noting that while the struggles outlined below in general take the greatest toll on mothers (and primary caregivers or homemakers, regardless of gender), they still apply broadly to low-income families and individuals.
Overall, the study found that these mothers cared deeply about providing healthy food for their families and understood what that entailed — they just didn’t have the time or resources to do it.
“A lot of cooking advice, even budget cooking advice, makes assumptions about what a person’s life and home looks like,” Bowen told HuffPost. “Even ‘chop a bunch of vegetables’ assumes that you have a sharp knife, a cutting board, a working oven. And a lot of the recipes assume bigger things, like having a Crock-Pot or other specialized equipment.”
There’s also the issue of brainstorming and planning meals that will work for a given family, and then grocery shopping for those items. Bowen pointed out that many mothers in the study didn’t have cars or easy access to a grocery store. They would either take the bus to the store and a taxi home with all of their grocery bags, or they would rely on another friend or family member to drive. For this reason (and to keep closer track of their budgets), many women participating in the study shopped just once a month, which meant they could purchase fewer fresh foods and more inexpensive convenience foods like boxed mac and cheese.
“People will say time and money are excuses, that home cooking is really not that hard. We want to emphasize that it is hard, and that it involves a lot of invisible labor.”
Anyone who feeds a family can likely attest to the fact that a lot of work goes into cooking before you turn the knob on the stove. Much of the research and advice surrounding time spent cooking doesn’t really grasp the full picture, Elliott said.
In examining the challenges of home cooking and offering solutions, food reformers and researchers often “don’t take into account the invisible labor: planning meals and grocery lists, thinking about less expensive substitutions, knowing what you have at home,” Elliott told HuffPost.
Additionally, the shift work in retail, fast food and other service jobs that many low-income parents hold usually comes with an erratic and unpredictable schedule that often isn’t finalized until the week of, which makes planning especially hard, Elliott added. Even mothers in higher income brackets struggled to find time to cook and felt guilty about it, she said, though many were able to take advantage of market solutions like meal kits or prepared foods.
“Part of the reason parents are spending so much time investing in their children is because they’re worried about their children’s future, worried about them going down the mobility ladder instead of up.”- Sinikka Elliott, sociologist
Elliot also argued that there is emotional labor in trying to make cooking and mealtime a happy, positive experience for one’s family, even during times of struggle, and that it is nearly impossible to quantify. All three co-authors pointed to an increased pressure for this generation of parents to be involved with their children’s lives and prioritize quality time.
“Sociological research shows part of the reason parents are spending so much time investing in their children is because they’re worried about their children’s future, worried about them going down the mobility ladder instead of up,” Elliott said. This emphasis on more quality time, plus the fact that parents generally have less free time than they did in previous generations, is yet another obstacle to making time for budget-friendly, healthy cooking.
“How can we make it possible for more families to feel like they have the time to enjoy dinner? One way is to give them more control over their time by raising wages and providing more predictable schedules.”
In terms of actionable solutions, it’s complicated.
“How can we make it possible for more families to feel like they have the time to enjoy dinner? One way is to give them more control over their time by raising wages and providing more predictable schedules,” Bowen said.
Smaller community initiatives can also make a big impact. A library in Lee County, North Carolina, for example, allows people to loan out appliances, such as Crock-Pots, Bowen said. While that doesn’t solve every problem, it’s a good place to start. Other communities have begun using school and church kitchens to cook bulk meals during off-hours, then selling them on a sliding scale.
Ultimately, it’s important for us as a society to stop insisting that timely, efficient and budget-friendly cooking is possible if you just try a little bit harder, Bowen and Elliott said. It’s unfair and puts a lot of responsibility on people to overcome problems that are, at their core, systemic.