A new study examined mothers and families in order to look at the value of home-cooked meals:
But while home-cooked meals are typically healthier than restaurant food, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton from North Carolina State University argue that the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.
The researchers interviewed 150 mothers from all walks of life and spent 250 hours observing 12 families in-depth, and they found “that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.” The mothers they interviewed had largely internalized the social message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen,” but found that as much as they wanted to achieve that ideal, they didn’t have the time or money to get there. Low-income mothers often have erratic work schedules, making it impossible to have set meal times. Even for middle-class working mothers who are able to be home by 6 p.m., trying to cook a meal while children are demanding attention and other chores need doing becomes overwhelming…
Beyond just the time and money constraints, women find that their very own families present a major obstacle to their desire to provide diverse, home-cooked meals. The women interviewed faced not just children but grown adults who are whiny, picky, and ungrateful for their efforts. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the researchers write. Mothers who could afford to do so often wanted to try new recipes and diverse ingredients, but they knew that it would cause their families to reject the meals. “Instead, they continued to make what was tried and true, even if they didn’t like the food themselves.” The saddest part is that picky husbands and boyfriends were just as much, if not more, of a problem than fussy children.
The researchers quote food writer Mark Bittman, who says that the goal should be “to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden.” But while cooking “is at times joyful,” they argue, the main reason that people see cooking mostly as a burden is because it is a burden. It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway. If we want women—or gosh, men, too—to see cooking as fun, then these obstacles need to be fixed first. And whatever burden is left needs to be shared.
It seems like there is a bigger issue here: while such meals may be healthier but more stressful and expensive, the bigger issue is the idealization of home-cooked meals. In other words, the standard of “normal” mothering and home life is one that is difficult for many people to regularly meet. When they fall short of the standard, mothers feel guilty because society suggests this is one of the markers of a good mother. If it came down to it, might the particular food on the table be less important than the fact that the family regularly eats together?
One of the questions to emerge out of this recent recession is which pre-recession patterns will return once the economic climate improves. One report suggests that although spending levels have increased again, eating at home might be a more permanent pattern:
Restaurants traditionally have led other types of businesses out of a recession. This time, they’re at least a year and a half behind retailers. Sales of clothing grew 5 percent last year and autos rose 11 percent, as Americans started feeling better about their finances. At casual sit-down restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, the increase was just 1 percent. Some analysts say that could be the new norm…
Americans lead the world in restaurant spending. About 44 percent of food dollars are spent outside the home — a figure that started rising sharply in the 1970s, as more women joined the work force. Full-service restaurant revenue rose 5 to 7 percent a year in the decade leading up to the Great Recession, which halted growth. Over the next decade, visits to restaurants are forecast to increase less than 1 percent a year, according to the NPD Group. That’s less than the population will grow.
Instead of handing their money over to mediocre eateries during the week, people are saving up for the occasional nice meal, says Stifel Nicolaus analyst Steve West. Meanwhile, cooking has become hip, says Rick Smilow, president of the Institute for Culinary Education, where registration for recreational courses was up 10 percent last year.
It would be interesting to see more data on this: how many of these meals at home are made out of mostly fresh ingredients? What kind of food are people spending money on – taking that restaurant money to buy more expensive items or trying to eat on the cheap? How much less are people spending on food overall as they eat out less?
The perception about eating at home might be crucial. The idea that cooking is now “hip” could be tied to a number of factors including more upscale grocery stores (the equivalent of shopping at Whole Foods versus Wal-Mart), a number of celebrity chefs, and around-the-clock cooking shows. Eating at home may be good for the financial bottom line but it will appeal to a lot more people if it is cool.
After San Francisco recently moved to ban the toys in Happy Meals (by tying the ability to include toys to certain nutrition benchmarks), Josh Ozersky argues that more than just banning Happy Meals is needed: American food culture and what foods it says are good needs to be changed.
No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. America’s tots aren’t getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals…University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.
But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead…
Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins…
Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can’t cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive?
Ozersky doesn’t quite come out and say it but he is suggesting that Americans need to radically rethink their diets and food choices. This is not a matter of just eating less fast food but thinking about all processed food and why we eat it rather than more natural food. As other writers like Michael Pollan have pointed out, other cultures make different food choices where natural is the norm and meals are events that then five or ten minute periods where Americans try to relieve their hunger while also getting essential nutrients. American food habits are tied to a whole host of other phenomenon including cars (fast food), ideas about efficiency, technology (eating in front of the TV, microwaved food), ideas about how expensive food should be, and more. And these are patterns that start young.
The question of whether all of this could be changed through governmental intervention or through other means is another controversy for another day.
(Another thought: how come McDonald’s is the most common target of such actions? It is kind of like the attention that Walmart draws – neither McDonalds or Walmart are the only games in town and yet their size and reputation tends to draw the most attention.)