Study claims family dinners are elitist, put unnecessary pressure on mothers

Campus Reform Reporter

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  • The study concludes that the resurgent emphasis on home cooking is "a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist."
  • Suggested solutions include healthy food trucks, monthly town suppers, shifting society’s emphasis towards lunch, and schools offering to-go meals that families can heat up for dinner.
  • A study published by professors at North Carolina State University claims that pressure put on mothers to cook nightly meals is elitist and stressful for working class families.

    Published in late August, "The Joy of Cooking" reports the authors' findings after interviewing 150 mothers from diverse ethnic backgrounds over the past year-and-a-half. The professors also spent time shadowing 12 working-class and poor families.

    The study concludes that the resurgent emphasis on home cooking is "a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist."   

    According to the study, the heightened pressure from influential figures like Michael Pollan and Michelle Obama for families to sit down to healthier, home cooked meals on a nightly basis has become a source of stress for American mothers. The study refers to the message that "good mothers" cook for their families as "unrealistic."

    Authors Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Bretton (a professor at Ithaca College) relay a number of anecdotes culled from their body of research. Interviewed women cited time, money, and picky children as obstacles.

    "Romantic depictions of cooking assume that everyone has a home, that family members are home eating at the same time, and that kitchens and dining spaces are equipped and safe,” the authors write. “This is not necessarily the case for the families we met."

    The study alleges that even in modern America, expectations for a home-cooked, nightly meal constitute a "widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held." The authors document the experience of Elaine, a married mother of one, who feels inadequate because she struggles to provide a relaxing dinner for her family despite her love of cooking and preparation on the weekends.

    The study suggests various different solutions, including the advent of healthy food trucks, monthly town suppers, shifting society’s emphasis towards lunch, and schools offering to-go meals that families can heat up for dinner.

    The study does not mention any families that were able to enjoy a nightly home-cooked meal without drama. It concludes that the resurgent emphasis on home cooking is "a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist."

    "From cooking shows to public health messages to food gurus like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, home-cooked meals have been broadly promoted as a way to improve Americans' health,” Elliott told Campus Reform in an email. “

    She went on to say that “[i]ntentionally or not, these messages place the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women because they dovetail with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of 'good' mothering."

    “So in a larger context of concerns about rising child and adult obesity rates and the decline of the traditional family, home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen,” Elliott said.

    Other research calls this perspective into question. Researchers at the University of Michigan have followed the domestic habits of 3,000 Generation X adults for 25 years. In 2012, this comprehensive study found that American men appear to be highly involved in household cooking duties.

    "Gen X men are more involved in all aspects of meal preparation—from grocery shopping to cooking—than their fathers were. These men spend more time in the kitchen than their dads did, cooking about eight meals a week and buying groceries more than one a week," Time Magazine wrote of the study’s ongoing findings.

    "Gen X men also watch cooking shows and read magazine articles on cooking just as much as women do,” Time noted.

    Jon Miller, the study's author, remarked, “Men have fun in the kitchen. I was surprised by how often they shop and cook...Clearly they are into it.”

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @emilyjashinsky