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Image: David Grotto and family
Courtesy of David Grotto
“Cooking is part of what it means to be a father,” says nutritionist David Grotto, here with his wife and three daughters. But even though Grotto prepares dinner several times a week, most of the daily cooking falls to his wife.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/17/2010 8:22:26 AM ET 2010-06-17T12:22:26

David Grotto, 50, a registered dietitian who has written two cookbooks, prepares dinner for his wife and three teenage daughters several times a week.

“Cooking is part of what it means to be a father,” said Grotto, who provides nutrition and culinary training for families, including dads, in Chicago. “It’s about providing for your family, not just financially, but helping with some of the basic skills of life, mentoring and demonstrating how cooking can be a fun and simple thing to do.”

Dads, it’s almost your day. But while you enjoy the homemade cards, ties and gadgets from your loved ones, think about giving something back to the family. Cook more.

Not just the ceremonial weekend ritual of grilling steak or flipping burgers. Bring more of your man skills to the kitchen every day. Cozy up to the stove (or microwave). Cut some carrots. It could help restore the family meal — something many experts believe is key to battling childhood obesity.

A new study just published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that moms who work full-time are more likely to have overweight or obese kids, with fewer family meals cited as a key reason why. Meals prepared and eaten at home are almost always more nutritious than restaurant fare, typically more balanced and lower in calories, fat and sodium.

But why do working moms get singled out when working dads routinely get a pass in the kitchen?

‘Foodwork’ underappreciated
Certainly, some guys do pick up the slotted spoon. About 40 percent of men in this country will cook dinner at some time in the next two weeks, according to Harry Balzer, a senior analyst with The NPD Group and author of “Eating Patterns in America.” Then there are the “gastrosexuals,” the dudes who see searing tuna as a competitive sport and a way to attract women.

Yet within families, the day-to-day cooking still typically falls to Mom. Only about 13 percent of all meals consumed in the home are prepared by men and that number has actually dropped in recent years after a steady increase, possibly due to the strains of the economy, Balzer notes. More families are tightening budgets and eating at home, Balzer said, but “women are disproportionately taking on more" of the daily cooking load.

Even nutritionist Grotto acknowledges that most of the daily meals are prepared by his wife.

In a recent article “The Food Movement, Rising,” in the New York Review of Books, writer Michael Pollan makes a strong case that the American family meal is threatened, partly because women are busy with full-time jobs outside the home, but also because “foodwork” is underappreciated in today’s world. In the book, “The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics and Civil Society," author Janet A. Flammang, also argues that we need to change our current views of kitchen duties. 

“If foodwork continues to be regarded as invisible, unacknowledged and female-only, then the quality of all our lives suffers,” Flammang, a political science professor at Santa Clara University, writes.

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In other words, working women are too busy to cook, but fathers don't view planning and preparing the family meal as valuable as other duties, so they don't focus on their sauté skills. The amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income, Harvard researchers have found. But someone needs to be preparing the meals and we can’t just expect mom to do it. Dads and children need to join them there. 

Getting dads in the kitchen
Maybe the launch of new cooking shows, food magazines and websites devoted to the male cook will give enough of a masculine spin on the family meal to get guys more involved.  For example, the Food Network has been trying to attract a larger male audience with machismo-infused chefs like Guy Fieri who hosts three shows, including “Guy's Big Bite.”

ManTestedRecipes.com, is described as a “virtual man-cave where men can talk about food, post and comment on recipes, is a new social food site catering to the food interests and preferences of men. And a new men’s food magazine, "Deen Bros. Good Cooking", created by the sons of Food Network star Paula Deen, also seems to embrace the “dude food” philosophy.

Still, Grotto believes the “guy’s club” approach to cooking may not be the solution to what families really need  — quick and easy ideas for nutritious meals, “not complicated Food Network-style extravaganzas.” Unfortunately, many men don’t feel they have the cooking skills to feel comfortable in the kitchen.

“They just don’t want to botch  it up,” he said.  “It’s like not wanting to ask for directions when driving.”

Janet Helm is a Chicago-based registered dietitian and author of the blog "Nutrition Unplugged."

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