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The problem with home-cooked meals

Food writers love to expound on the benefits of home-cooked meals.

"No nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again," Mark Bittman at the New York Times wrote in an op-ed extolling the benefits of preparing food at home. To tackle the obesity crisis, he writes, "The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life."

A team of sociologists that recently spent 18 months following nearly 200 low- and middle-income moms argue that’s much easier said than done. The three researchers — Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot and Joselyn Bretton — spent hundreds of hours interviewing and observing how moms feed their families. And they found that, while many enjoyed cooking, the time pressures and desire to please all family members made home-cooked meals a tiring, stressful experience.

For these families, tossing a salad wasn’t simple at all. Those who lacked reliable transportation only grocery shopped once each month, making perishable foods impractical. Scrambled eggs might not please all family members; roasting a chicken requires time between finishing work and serving dinner.

"The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint," they write in the journal Contexts. "Romantic depictions of cooking assume that everyone has a home, that family members are home eating at the same time, and that kitchens and dining spaces are equipped and safe. This is not necessarily the case for the families we met."

Earlier this week I interviewed Bowen, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, about the research and what she learned.

Sarah Kliff: Tell me a little bit about the research project you’re working on, and what you’re trying to understand about the role of home-cooked meals.

Sarah Bowen: We’ve interviewed 120 low-income mothers about the social, economic, and cultural factors that affect how they feed their families. We also have 30 interviews with middle-class mothers as part of one of my co-authors' project. The interviews usually last about two hours, and we also selected 12 of those families to do more intensive ethnographic observations. With them, we’d visit them at least 10 times over a month, watching them as they made dinner, went grocery shopping, went to the WIC office and doctor appointments. We tried to get a better picture of their daily lives.

SK: And with all of that observation, what did you learn?

SB: One thing that really came across was that people are actually cooking a lot. On average, the people in our study were making dinner at home five nights each week. For the poorer families, they cooked because they didn’t have the money to eat out. Middle-class families felt it was important to cook and eat at home. So people in our study were cooking, but a lot felt like they didn’t have enough time or money to do it the "right" way. There were essentially three obstacles that got in the way of cooking the ideal meal, and they affected families in different ways.

One thing we heard a lot about was time pressure. For the poor and working class families, many of them had unpredictable or non-standard schedules that might change week to week. Quite a few had service industry jobs. Their schedule would change, and they might not know until a day or two in advance. They didn’t have this predictable schedule that is implied in the notion that we all get home at 5:30 and can start dinner.

Middle-class moms had more predictable schedules and most of them had a partner to share in the work of cooking. (Some of the poor and working class moms had partners, but others were single moms). Still, they said they lacked the time they needed, with everyone getting home around 6 o'clock and then scrambling to get dinner ready. They also wanted to spend time with their kids, so there was that tension.

cooking

(AFP via Getty Images)

SK: How did the cost of cooking factor into the decisions that the families you were studying made?

SB: We weren’t surprised that money was an issue for the poorer families. A lot has been written on how healthy ingredients are more expensive, so that was one issue. In addition, a lot of the poorer families didn’t have reliable transportation, so they would only shop once a month. They wouldn’t buy very much fresh produce at all, because it goes bad quickly.

Some of the families didn’t have a kitchen table, or enough chairs for everyone, or lacked basic kitchen utensils, so that was another obstacle. When we hear about how we all need home-cooked meals, there are a lot of assumptions of what that looks like.

For the poorer families, this didn’t always reflect reality. The middle-class moms talked about money, but it was more about not having enough money to buy what they felt was necessary to make the very best for their families — for example, not being able to buy as much organic food as they wanted.

SK: When you and your co-authors talked to these moms, was there an ideal meal they were comparing what they made against? Was there a sense of, "Here’s what I should be doing and here’s how I’m falling short?"

SB: The middle-class moms did talk about this ideal meal. They had read these things, or heard these things about the importance of making dinner like your grandma and not eating processed foods. They were trying to live up to that and feeling like they were not able to, either because of money or maybe because they wanted to spend more time with their kids. It wasn’t that easy.

The poor and working class moms were less likely to talk about ideal meals in that way. A few mentioned organics, but they generally said that they couldn’t afford organic food or that organic food was for rich people. I remember one mom who said that she had heard something about organic and why to eat organic, but that she made it go in one ear and out the other because she didn’t have the money. In general, poor moms were focused on making sure their families got enough to eat, but they also talked about trying to give their families good or healthy food.

SK: One of the things you write about as a challenge is pleasing other family members with cooking, and trying to make something everybody would like. How does that play out?

SB: We observed a lot of meals, and there were very few where at least someone didn’t complain. Negotiating people’s preferences was a challenge for everyone.

Middle-class moms felt it was important to try new foods, so they were working hard to develop their children’s palates, even if this was stressful and time-consuming. For the poor moms, they couldn’t afford to waste food if their families didn’t like it, so they reasoned it was better to stick with foods their families would eat. For all of the families, making sure everyone would eat was a challenge they had to navigate.

kids food

(John Moore / Getty Images News)

SK: So after observing all these meals and families, how did that shape how you think about the importance of home-cooked meals?

SB: We’re not against family meals and we're definitely not against dinner. Most people would agree that it sounds nice to slow down and enjoy a home cooked meal. But just telling people to do a better job doesn’t really address all these bigger issues that affect families’ abilities to make these meals. These are things that range from food access, to where the grocery store is located, to wages, to having jobs with predictable hours. If this is important that people be able to eat home-cooked, healthy meals, we have to think about what we need to do to get there.

We haven’t figured that out, but we have a few ideas, like healthy food trucks or community kitchens or to-go meals at schools that kids can take home. It’s good that people are talking about food, but we should start thinking about how can we support families in ways that aren’t just in the kitchen.

SK: For the families that were trying to make home-cooked meals work, how’d they navigate these challenges? What were the trade-offs like?

SB: People would try different things. Sometimes they would involve kids with cooking, sometimes they would use crockpots or more frozen food.

I’m thinking of one mom who was going to community college and commuting back and forth by bus. She and the kids would get home at 8 p.m. She said that if she could just get home at 6, she might have time to cook like she wanted to, but when she got home at 8 she had to put something together fast. She had grown up cooking with her grandma and talked about how she liked cooking. There were lots of women like that. They liked showing their families they cared, and they liked cooking. But during the week it was really hard to do that.

SK: Is there a negative consequence to encouraging people to make more home-cooked meals? Does it set up a standard that people can’t reach?

SB: I guess I would dodge the question a little bit, and say I think what is more important is making sure that people have the opportunity to eat good meals with their families. In order for all families to have that opportunity, we need to address some of these larger issues. Having the opportunity to eat good meals shouldn’t just be a privilege. So for me, what’s really important is looking at how we change that.

SK: Was there anything in doing this research that surprised you?

SB: How much people were cooking. We hear all of the time that Americans have stopped cooking. A lot of the families in our study were cooking every night, especially the poorest families. They couldn’t afford to eat fast food and a lot didn’t have cars. People were cooking a lot and that surprised me a little, because of how much we hear that the opposite is true. At the same time, they felt they weren’t cooking well enough. They felt like they didn’t have enough money and weren’t able to cook the right way or the way they should be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.