Farewell, family meal? Stress of cooking may outweigh benefits

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By Joan Raymond

A mother’s work is never done. Especially if she’s trying to serve healthy, fresh, made-from-scratch meals that please her family as well as the legions of foodies and public health officials who say the cure for the nation’s obesity problems begins in the kitchen.

Good luck with that added stress, say researchers from North Carolina State University in a new study.

Lack of time and money and picky eaters make it tough for today’s mothers to recreate what researchers call “the idealized vision of home-cooked meals.” And while dads may be helping out more, the researchers say the stress of family meals still falls primarily on women.

The team interviewed 150 black, white, and Latina mothers, with family incomes ranging from poor to middle-class, and spent more than 250 hours with 12 families during meals, grocery runs and children’s medical checks. Most mothers, regardless of income, were feeling the angst.

“I was very surprised at the consistency across all social classes,” says Sinikka Elliott, associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “It didn’t matter if they were poor, working class, or middle class, there are added burdens being placed on mothers and on families today. The expectations are getting ramped up and are increasingly getting harder to meet.”

Those “expectations,” the researchers say, come from the celebrity chefs, food critics and public health officials who tout the message that home-cooked meals made from scratch could help mitigate nutrition-linked health issues like heart disease and diabetes. There is also a widespread belief among the women that if you want to be a good mom in a good family with good kids, you cook.

But finding time is a huge issue, even for middle-class moms, who may be best able to buy fresh and cook from scratch. Middle class mothers are caught up shuttling their kids to activities, generally work 40 or more hours a week and don’t get home from work until about 6 p.m.

“To be sure, under the right circumstances one could enjoy a slow-cooked meal made with fresh and organic ingredients,” says Joslyn Brenton, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College. “But the question is what American that you know of actually lives in these circumstances?”

Why it's 3 p.m., time to start your gourmet dinner from scratch! No? Modern moms are finding the stress of family meals may outweigh the benefits.Everett Collection / Today

Certainly not Elizabeth Brown, a married mother of three children, who works full-time and then spends most of her free time carting kids to a myriad of extra-curricular activities. Although her husband sometimes helps with cooking, the task is largely in her court.

“I barely have time to shop, let alone cook,” says Brown, 37, of suburban Cleveland, Ohio. “And yes, do I feel guilty sometimes? Sure. When everybody is telling you to cook fresh, you feel like a failure when you can’t always do that or even cook at all.”

Lower-income women, with ever-changing work schedules, transportation issues, limited funds, and sometimes even lacking basic kitchen tools, do seem to cook the most, since eating out is more expensive. But even middle class families like the Browns are feeling the pinch, with ever-rising food costs. According to the researchers, a worldwide food price study found that eating healthy cost an extra $550.00 a year, per person.

Although the researchers didn’t study how to fix the issue, they do believe solutions will require a lot of creativity, and could include community suppers, food trucks serving healthy fare for underserved areas, even schools offering take-home meals that families could heat up and enjoy together.

The take-away message from their work puts the kibosh on the “romanticized” version of those 20th century nightly family meals many people remember. Although the nostalgia factor is strong, researchers say it took a lot of work, a lot of planning, and a lot of money for moms to get those meals on the table, too.

“I think it’s good that people are talking about food and that some people are recognizing the challenges of feeding families,” says Sarah Bowen, assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “But I think what is often missing from that foodie ideal is the gender card and how all of this affects women. That needs to be incorporated.”

Brown couldn’t agree more, but she also thinks it’s important to remember that a family meal is about more than nutrition. “Look, sometimes we eat spaghetti with sauce from a jar and we still have a blast together,” she says. “So I’m not going to feel too stressed if they’re not eating kale every night because sometimes it’s even more important to talk to each other around the table.

“Besides I’m not sure anyone in this house would even eat kale.”