What’s so important – and stressful – about family dinner?
A recent study about the stress of getting family meals on the table has been getting lots of attention from both the media and moms. A Slate piece, “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” posted Wednesday, has already garnered 3.5K comments on the article itself and more than 26K Facebook shares. This has obviously struck a nerve. While feeding a family is a big and often stressful job, some perspective about why we do it and what matters most about family meals might be helpful to families feeling the mealtime crunch.
The study itself, titled “The Joy of Cooking?”, was published in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association geared to be accessible to the general public. The paper itself is a really interesting read and freely available online.
Researchers in the sociology and anthropology departments at North Carolina State University conducted the study. This was a qualitative study, which means that the data came in the form of stories, generated from interviews with real people. From the paper:
“Over the past year and a half, our research team conducted in-depth interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life. We also spent over 250 hours conducting ethnographic observations with 12 working-class and poor families. We observed them in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, and tagged along on trips to the grocery store and to their children’s check-ups. Sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives, we came to appreciate the complexities involved in feeding a family.”
These kinds of methods are common in sociology and anthropology research, and they allow researchers to understand the many complex variables that contribute to how people feel and why they feel that way. However, we have to be careful about interpreting these studies beyond the individual stories that they provide. For example, this study wasn’t a random sample of moms, and it can’t give us quantitative information like the percentage of moms who find cooking to be an unbearable chore versus rewarding or enjoyable. It doesn’t allow us to look at correlations between family income and nights of home-cooked meals per week, for example.
Here’s what it can tell us: Among the moms interviewed for the study, a common theme was that getting a home-cooked family meal on the table was stressful. The authors discuss the dichotomy of foodie standards for homegrown, home-cooked, preferably organic, meals, prepared with love and joy, and the realities faced by many families today. The moms interviewed in the study talked about how with both parents working long, irregular hours, there is simply no time to cook, much less sit down at the table at the same time. Others talked about the trade-offs between spending time cooking or spending time with their kids at the end of the day. Many noted that it was hard to please everyone with one meal, so they ended up sticking to tried-and-true, if boring, recipes rather than experimenting with new foods and flavors.
Interestingly – though not surprising to me – poor moms in this study actually routinely cooked at home, because they recognized that it was the most cost-effective way to feed their families. That didn’t mean that cooking was joyful, but it was a necessary part of raising a family on a tight budget, even with barriers like not having reliable transportation, access to good food stores, or well-equipped kitchens.
However, middle class moms cited financial barriers, too:
“To our surprise, many of the middle-class mothers we met also told us that money was a barrier to preparing healthy meals. Even though they often had household incomes of more than $100,000 a year, their membership in the middle-class was costly. While they did not experience food shortages, they were forced to make tradeoffs in order to save money—like buying less healthy processed food, or fewer organic items than they would like.”
Let’s face it: planning and preparing meals is hard work. It takes time, money, and effort, and doing it in the presence of children can make it more difficult. It may or may not be enjoyable, but it is definitely work and should be recognized as such. The Pinterest boards, food blogs, and gorgeous food magazines can be helpful inspiration, but they can also set us up for unreasonable expectations for family meals.
There is good evidence that family meals are important to kids. Eating regular meals as a family supports greater fruit and vegetable intake and displaces soda and fried foods. Not surprisingly, this results in better nutrition, and these same patterns can last at least into young adulthood. Research also shows that adolescents who eat family meals are protected from disordered eating, overweight, and substance abuse. There’s always debate about whether these association are because of the meal itself or the conditions that make family meals feasible, but there is evidence that family meals provide benefits to kids independent of other factors.
But let’s also consider how “family meal” is defined in the research. For example, in this paper, kids were asked, “On how many of the past 7 days was at least one of your parents in the room with you while you ate your evening meal?” There is nothing in that definition about meals made from scratch with all-organic ingredients. There isn’t anything in there about using real plates and forks or even the nutritional quality of the meal. All of those things might be desirable and might add more pleasure to a meal, but the most important thing about family meals is time spent together. If everything else is causing stress, then remember that as the first priority for family meals.
However, we do want to serve nutritious meals to our kids and support them in growing good eating habits, so let’s think about nutrition for a minute. Putting together a balanced meal means including all or most of the food groups. By offering this variety of foods, at least for most meals, you pretty much ensure that meals will be nutritionally adequate without having to fret much about individual nutrients. Your balanced meals may be elaborate and impressive, but they don’t need to be. Protein can be a scoop of peanut butter served next to apples, chickpeas from a can, or 3-minute scrambled eggs. The grain can be whole-wheat sandwich bread with butter. Vegetables can be the frozen variety, prepared in a minute in the microwave, then seasoned with a little butter and salt. (From a nutrition standpoint, these options are just as good as fresh. Also, conventionally grown produce is just as nutritious as organic.) These meals may not meet the standards of Martha Stewart or Michael Pollan, but they can still be nutritionally balanced, and their easy preparation may allow dinner to be more relaxing.
I enjoy cooking – to a certain extent – and I have the privilege of usually having the time and money to prepare the kinds of foods that I want for my family. Still, from my own qualitative research in the laboratory of my kitchen, I’ve observed a few things. First, there is zero correlation between the effort that went into the preparing the food and the quality of the interactions between children and parents at the table. Second, there is a high correlation between the complexity of the meal I’ve prepared and my stress level by the time I sit down at the table. For me, both of these observations are unique to cooking with and for young kids, and I expect they’ll get better as kids get older and can help in the kitchen and better appreciate good meals. In the meantime, though, I try to keep meal preparation simple and focus on enjoying food together.
Are family meals important in your house? Are they a source of stress? How do you pull them off?
P.S. – I’m sorry for my long and unintended absence from the blog. I’ve received several expert peer reviews on my book manuscript and have been working on finishing up edits – the book will soon be officially IN PRESS! We’ve also been doing summer things like swim lessons, camping, and refinishing the deck. The leaves are starting to turn, the fall college term is about to start, and we’ll be back in more regular routines in life and on the blog soon. Hope you all have had a great summer!