An article in Slate magazine argues that cooking dinner at home is a glorified ideal which actually results in nothing but drudgery for the one who prepares the meal, most often the woman in the household. The article references a study from researchers at North Carolina State University which argues that the benefits of a home cooked dinner, often cited by well known food writers such as Michael Pollan, might be overestimated.
Predictably, this lead to much debate and dissent. A response by Joel Salatin that there should be any reaction other than reverence for the ritual of the dinner cooked at home. He exhorts us to stop the soccer run, ditch the TV shows, “get out of the car and get in the kitchen”. This is directed mostly again at Mom who picks up chicken nuggets on the way to practice rather than taking advantage of the slow cooker, the refrigerator and today’s “techno enabled kitchens” to cook the family a healthy meal. There is a mention, at the end of the piece, of men who are part of the problem as they spend their weekends rider a mower on an “ecological dead zone” aka the suburban lawn instead of growing a vegetable garden to feed their families.
The first step in making sense of this would be to ask the question: what, exactly, is a home cooked meal? Does heating up frozen dinners at home qualify? A family sitting and eating together at a table, each with their own frozen choice perhaps, is certainly a component of the dinner-at-home scenario. Does it matter of the meal was actually cooked at home from scratch? It is important to think about this because the problem with the idea of the home cooked dinner is really twofold: the problem of time and the problem of choice. Cooking a meal from start to finish: including cleaning and cutting vegetables and meat, actual cooking time, serving and cleaning up afterwards is an enormous time sink. In the real world we are all dealing with several chores and errands plus working at earning a living and there is never enough time so those frozen dinners or pasta in the box becomes an important resource. This option also allows each member of the family to pick the option they want. Nothing is more energy sapping than cooking and serving up a nutritious dinner and have kids (and adults!) say they do not like it or want to eat it.
The frozen scenario is not really the one that the pro-cooked-dinner writers favors. They paint a picture of Mom coming out of the kitchen with heaping bowls of steaming hot food , fresh from the kitchen. This picture has really no basis in reality. In every society at every time of human life, those who were financially able to, employed cooks and maids to cook and serve food, this was not just for royalty or the very rich but even true for middle class families.
Today, no one has a cook other than the 1% . So, it is mostly up to Mom to come home from work, tidy up the house, take care of errands, laundry, help with homework and cook dinner. Many mothers would prefer to heat up the frozen meal and use the extra few precious minutes to be with their children. Are these parents unaware of the results of the trade-off? No, they are simply trying to make sense of the options in our increasingly hectic and complicated lives. It is not easy to ditch soccer and ballet if every other parent around you is fixated on the “best activities” to put on the college applications of their kid who is , at the moment, just learning to tie his shoe laces.
It takes organizing to plan meals for a family for a whole week, to shop accordingly and have the meals appear on time. Let us start by acknowledging that. When was the last time someone said of their spouse, with pride, that they cooked dinner at home every day? Did we as adults recognize that while today’s meal may not crack our top ten, it does represent a whole hour of labor and caring from someone? And do we encourage our children to recognize this as well? It is not simply about who makes dinner but the true value we assign to this task.