Are the benefits of home-cooked meals worth the hassle of making them? This question has been asked around the web this week as bloggers digest a recent publication by three sociologists at North Carolina State University.
After interviewing 150 mothers from diverse economic backgrounds, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton suggest that the time limitations, financial constraints, and the “feeding challenges that shape the family meal” may make the task of cooking for the family more burdensome than it’s worth—and a burden that falls disproportionately on women.
Some of these burdens are familiar to all of us. “It’s not the cooking as much as it is the planning” Diana Reese writes, commenting on the study, “that makes me dread the 5 o’clock hour.” Diana, I feel your pain. Home cooking presents additional challenges to low-income families for whom fresh produce can be prohibitively expensive and transportation to grocery stores can be limited. Some families cannot afford “basic kitchen tools like sharp knives, cutting boards, pots and pans.”
But before we throw in the towel and head for McDonalds for a twenty-piece box of McNuggets, it’s worth remembering just what the benefits of home-cooked family meals are.
1) Healthier Bodies: Research consistently shows that eating out frequently is “is associated with obesity, higher body fatness, or higher BMI.” Children who eat dinner and breakfast with their parents at least five days week, one study found, are less likely to be obese than children who do not.
2) Healthier Families: CASAColumbia, has found in a survey of 1003 teenagers, that frequent family dinners have a slew of benefits for teenagers, from stronger relationships with their parents to lower stress to lower rates of use for alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Of course, other factors that make it difficult for a family to sit down together for a home-cooked meal, may contribute to higher rates of drug and alcohol use and poorer relationships. But as CASAColumbia founder Joseph Califano has noted, “Family dinners are the perfect opportunity when teens can talk to their parents and parents can listen and learn.”
Given the many benefits of sitting down for a home-cooked meal, it would seem that they just might be worth the hassle.
But need they be such a hassle? The obstacles that low-income families face in preparing home-cooked meals with fresh produce are certainly real. But some of the challenges that Bowen, Elliott, and Brenton chronicle seem to be making the perfect the enemy of the good. The word ideal or idealized appears seven times in their publication. Mothers stress over not simply putting a home-cooked meal on the table but serving the “latest and best healthy foods, seeking out and trading new healthy recipes, and reworking the food budget to include more organic food,” not to mention pleasing picky eaters.
The ideal would, of course, be nice. But the basic benefits of home-cooked meals don’t seem to require the ideal. You don’t need to shop at Whole Foods or pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking for every meal. As the great Julia Child advised, "Remember you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you." Smaller portion sizes, fresh produce—even if they're not organic—and just sitting around the dinner table with the family can make a big difference.