Food & Drink

Chew On This: That sacred and elusive family meal

You’d almost think N.C. State University researchers Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot and Joslyn Brenton were going into people’s homes and stealing their slow cookers.

That’s based on the reaction to their latest research. Earlier this month, the three sociologists published a paper that concluded our society’s idealized version of the family meal was stressful, even impossible, for some low- and middle-class families to achieve.

The study made headlines all over the place, gaining notice from the “Today” show, Time magazine and the Washington Post. The comments on those stories volley from working parents venting about their failed efforts to get home-cooked meals on the table to indignation from home cooks who succeed in preserving the tradition.

“We’re touching a nerve,” said Elliot. “People were angry – that we’re trying to destroy the family meal.”

The researchers interviewed 150 women with children between ages 2 and 8 in Lee County, western Harnett County and Southeast Raleigh. Then they spent 250 hours observing a dozen working-class and poor families as they cooked, ate and shopped.

What they learned is that regardless of your income and socioeconomic status, the family meal can be a challenge.

“Dinner is hard for all of them in different ways,” said Bowen.

The study found women in poor families struggled to get dinner on the table because of limited finances and a lack of transportation, which makes it tougher to get to the grocery store. They found that inadequate kitchen equipment and poor sanitation were other hurdles. According to the study, “We observed homes without kitchen tables or functional appliances, infested by bugs and rats, and lacking basic kitchen tools like sharp knives, cutting boards, pots and pans.”

And contrary to the stereotype, researchers found that the women on the tightest budgets were the most likely to cook. “They were cooking a lot at home because it’s cheaper,” Bowen said.

Even with the advantages of reliable transportation, higher income and fully stocked kitchens, women in middle-class families still found cooking dinner stressful and frustrating. Elliot said those mothers worried about the effect of exposing their children to chemicals and hormones in food. About those women, the researchers wrote, “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.”

The researchers’ point was this: The blame for failing to reach this societal ideal routinely falls on the parents, and especially moms. Maybe that isn’t fair.

“Our research leads us to question why the front line in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen,” they wrote. “The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal.”

Although the researchers did not study solutions, they suggest food trucks with healthy choices, town suppers and even to-go meals offered at schools would help.

I have one solution to offer: Let’s drop this Norman Rockwell ideal. Let’s stop beating ourselves up. Dinner has to happen regardless, so let’s not serve it with a steaming bowl of guilt.

Do the best you can. Some nights that might be roast chicken with mashed potatoes. Other nights it might be frozen pizza and salad in a bag or hamburgers from the drive-thru.

Whatever is for dinner is OK, and besides, there’s laundry to do.