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Making Dinner Doesn't Need To Be As Hard As We Make It

all in all, we've become precious and perfectionistic about food to the extent that it almost seems not to count if we eat really well MOST of the time, while giving ourselves a break SOME of the time.
09/08/2014 05:47pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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"You're hungry again? Didn't I just feed you yesterday?"

What parent hasn't felt this from time to time? Yes, feeding our families is the parenting "gift" that keeps on giving; possibly the most endless task from the time we stick a nipple in their mouth when they're newly born, until we have to slap their hands to keep them from gobbling up half the rolls on the table as teens.

And parents -- American parents, anyway -- are feeling pretty darned resentful about the burden.

When I logged onto Facebook the other day, I saw that multiple mom-friends had shared a Slate article entitled "The Tyranny Of The Home-Cooked Family Meal," decrying the romanticization of the family dinner and the disproportionate pressure it puts on modern mothers.

The article was based on a recent research study from the University of North Carolina, which took a close look at the myriad ways that preparing the nightly meal can be burdensome, unrealistic and often prohibitively expensive, particularly for lower-income families.

Interestingly, though, the article was overwhelmingly shared by my middle- and upper-middle-class friends, usually accompanied with emphatic commentary: "YES." Or "This is what I've been saying!"

Citing lack of time, lack of family interest, and -- perhaps most importantly -- lack of their own interest in preparing a family meal, many of my fellow parents appreciated being "let off the hook" by the study's findings.

I understand their frustration. After all, since becoming a mom nearly 17 years ago, I've felt it myself, initially as a low-income, working student mother with little time and money and even fewer cooking skills; and now as a middle-class mom of many with more disposable income, but not necessarily a lot more time on my hands.

But here's the ugly (or tasty, depending on your perspective) truth: Humans need to eat. Most of us can't afford to eat healthy takeout or restaurant food every day, and even fast food isn't that cheap when you're feeding a larger family (I have five kids, and a quick run through the McDonald's drive-thru for basic value-priced meals easily sets us back $35 or more.)

Even for a smaller family who can eat fast food less expensively, I think we can all agree that's not a healthy solution to the food-prep problem. And the better the takeout, the more costly it gets.

So what's the alternative?

And do we really need one?

This will ruffle some feathers among the hassled home cooks I know, but far as I can see it, when it comes to middle-class families with choices and resources, the "burden" of the nightly meal is largely self-imposed.

That's right, I'm blaming the victim here: parents, making dinner just doesn't have to be as hard as we're making it.

Let's get the caveats out of the way right up front. Yes, mothers -- whether by choice or circumstance -- overwhelmingly bear the burden of planning and executing the nightly meal. Yes, for working mothers this expectation can be particularly burdensome. Yes, for some moms in particular -- those working second shift, or those without the budget to invest in healthy ingredients or a place in which to cook them -- getting that nightly meal on the table can be not just a hassle, but actually impossible.

So I understand the study authors' motivation in questioning whether producing regular home-cooked meals is feasible or worth the effort for most families. And I can even almost understand why, in her article for Slate, writer Amanda Marcotte referred to the idea of a home-cooked meal as "tyranny."

But the way I see it, getting dinner on the table is not the problem. It's all those societal expectations, obstacles and expectations that complicate the process and make it feel overwhelming and unmanageable.

Let's start with time. Yes, jam-packed academic, extracurricular and work schedules often leave busy parents little time for shopping, meal planning and cooking.

But instead of saying 'how messed up is it that we're so busy we don't have time to eat real food," we seem to be saying "This is just the way it is and always will be, so the centuries-old practice of making and eating meals has to go."

Maybe it's pie-in-the-sky thinking, but I refuse to give in to "the way things are," when the way things are is untenable and unhealthy. We may not always get to control our work schedules, but people, we do have the power to create reasonable routines for our children and protect our family time from being taken over by scheduled activities.

And while we're talking about choices, can we discuss the disproportionate way that getting dinner on the table affects mothers?

In a two-parent family, there's no reason both parents can't share the load in some way. And there's no reason that a child old enough to reach the counter can't be real help while cooking -- or at least during clean-up.

Even though I handle most of the actual cooking in our household -- my schedule is more flexible than my husband's, so it works for us -- knowing I can hand off a meal or two a week to my husband Jon and that the kids are going to do the dishes or help with younger siblings while I cook makes it manageable.

Yes, this kind of delegation can take time, effort and negotiation. So does pretty much everything else having to do with parenting and family life. Isn't eating good food worth it?

But beyond all this, here's what I see as the biggest challenge to getting dinner on the table: we've gone completely overboard with what counts as a "home-cooked" meal.

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When I was a kid, my mom put a balanced dinner on the table every single night. She also relied heavily on time-savers like boxed mashed potatoes, biscuits from a can and canned and frozen vegetables.

These days, however, we seem to think a meal doesn't even count unless it includes unusual spices, difficult cooking techniques and is made exclusively from GMO-free, organic, local ingredients sourced from the farmer's market.

We celebrate whole-foods proponents, many of whom earn a nice living from their opinions and cooking skills, while demonizing "semi-homemade" cooking a la Sandra Lee... conveniently forgetting that some of those shortcuts are what allowed our own mothers to feed us reasonably wholesome and affordable meals. (Note the word "reasonably.")

Both the North Carolina State University study and the Slate article repeatedly referred to the "foodie ideal" of the home-cooked dinner, and lamented the fact that, for most of us, it's unattainable or at least, not worth the effort.

But why are we trying to attain a "foodie ideal" in our kitchens and at our dining-room tables, anyway?

I'm not saying all of the stuff my mom fed me was all that healthy, in retrospect, and you wouldn't catch me dead with a box of mashed potato buds in my hand.

But all in all, we've become precious and perfectionistic about food to the extent that it almost seems not to count if we eat really well MOST of the time, while giving ourselves a break SOME of the time.

We put so much focus on what we serve that we've forgotten that half the point of a family dinner is sharing a meal with the people we love, even if that meal isn't perfectly "clean" or "whole."

Reality check: sometimes, you do what you have to do to get dinner done. Cooking from scratch is wonderful, but spaghetti made from a box and a jar in 10 minutes is almost certainly still better (and faster and cheaper) than hitting the drive-thru.

And the more we try (and fail) to meet some all-from-scratch ideal, the more likely we are to throw our hands up in the air and declare the family meal an impossible fantasy.

I'm a big proponent of "do what works for you" parenting. I know not everyone loves domestic tasks, and I'm certainly not going to judge anyone for serving their kids hot dogs or getting pizza delivery two nights in a row.

But over the long haul, there is no getting off the hook here, fellow parents. We are all going to have to eat today, tomorrow and next week. It can be mostly good food eaten with those we love, or mostly fast food stuffed into our faces over the steering wheel. The choice is ours.

I know I speak from a place of privilege, and that for parents who work long hours or don't have a place to prepare a nightly meal, this is overly simplistic. So I'm talking to my middle-class friends here, those with resources and options and a decent grocery budget.

The simple truth as I see it: for most of us, like it or not, the most direct, attainable, affordable route to "good food eaten with those we love" requires spending a little time planning regular homemade or at least, semi-homemade meals.

So, how do we stop feeling burdened by it all? Well, I can tell you what I did when I realized that I was falling into the "making dinner sucks" mindset:

  • I decided to start protecting our family's weeknight evening hours so the dinner hour felt less rushed and stressful.
  • I made a conscious decision to find ways to enjoy cooking.
  • I started planning ahead and treating the process of getting dinner on the table -- I refer to it as "the kitchen hour" -- as an important part of our day, not something to be put off and rushed through.
  • And I demanded that my family step up and help me in myriad ways, from doing the dishes to slicing the veggies to carrying groceries in from the car.

For many lower-income and working-class families, trying to figure out how to feed their families well and spend any time with them at all is a true burden. Let's not minimize their very real struggles by overblowing our own.

Maybe instead we could get over ourselves and our own perfectionistic food hangups a little. I know that, with all of our technology and resources and time-management applications, we can figure out a way to manage something so simple, that has been a staple of family life for centuries: sitting down together for a nightly meal.

Think about it this way: We certainly have more leisure time and options at our disposal than our grandmothers did.

Speaking of Grandma: I have a feeling she'd be shaking her head in confusion and amusement at the fact that we're having this debate in the first place.

Meagan Francis writes about the art of sane & satisfying family life at her blog, The Happiest Home.