It’s 5:45 p.m. I stand in front of the stove, entranced by the tiny water bubbles forming in the bottom of pot, and command a fabulous, healthy, kid-friendly, economical pasta dish to life. The boys have been home from school for three hours. They’ve used up allotted screen time and scarfed afternoon snacks. I’ve ushered kids’ friends in the front door—Sorry, no more snacks!—and out the side door. We’ve driven back and forth to art lessons, walked to and from Aikido. Now my eldest sidles up to the stove and peers in the pot, which still holds nothing but water. I brace myself. Here it comes:
“What’s for dinner, Mom?”
Same question, every afternoon, and it pushes my somewhat-fatigued buttons. The boys ask out of curiosity, hunger, and anticipation, but to me it feels like a test. My grade is a single word.
“Great!” equals an A.
“Okay.” B for Mom.
“Oh.” C, plus-or-minus.
“Great,” with no exclamation point. Fail.
Why do I care about this illusory grade? The kids should eat what I cook and be grateful. Yet any parent responsible for putting food on the table knows it’s not that simple. New research confirms that home cooking is difficult, fraught, and often not worth the effort.
Sociologists from North Carolina State University interviewed 150 American mothers and spent 250 hours observing a dozen families shop, cook, and eat their meals. The researchers found that working class mothers face enormous challenges to creating home-cooked dinners for their kids: the high cost of fresh food; lack of reliable transportation to grocery stores; unpredictable work schedules; pest infestations; and in some cases, lack of a kitchen. Middle-class moms could afford healthy food but felt pressure to work outside the home, spend quality time with their kids in the evening, and buy more organic ingredients. Not one of the women mentioned in the study felt she fulfilled an entrenched ideal: good mothers serve diverse, healthy meals cooked from scratch; functional families eat meals together, in harmony.
My kids are lucky. I work from home, so while I may be strapped for time, I’m not at the whim of franchise scheduling or wonky public transit. If I need fresh ingredients, I can walk to the supermarket or better yet, wait for the weekly farmers’ market. We’re not rich—thousandaires, my kids claim—but we have pots, knives, a food processor. We have an occasional fruit fly invasion, too, but no disease-carrying pests.
But time and money alleviate only part of the problem in our home and in the homes of those observed in the NCSU study. A more pervasive deterrent to serving home-cooked meals is pickiness. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” researchers reported. This includes families categorized as poor, working class, and middle class. Even when mothers plan, buy, and prepare a healthy meal from scratch, kids (and often partners) don’t want to eat it.
Pickiness is why “What’s for dinner, Mom?” drives me crazy. It’s the expectation that not only will a meal magically appear on the dinner table every night, the meal will cater to the diverse and capricious tastes of everyone in the family, too. Top earners in America spend almost half their food budget in restaurants; the lowest earners spend just over a third. Clearly, there are pulls away from home-cooking. Social and political issues—city planning, maternity benefits, education, crop subsidies—account for much of this pull. Pickiness, no doubt nurtured by those same issues, accounts for the rest.
The authors of the NCSU study offer several ideas to help parents serve healthy food to their families. They suggest reviving town suppers and making healthy take-out more accessible through mobile food trucks or even school cafeterias. The idea is to put less pressure on one person (usually a mother) to cook every evening by sharing the load.
This makes sense. We may wait a long time for a major shift in agriculture, health, trade, and employment policy to make home-cooking more feasible and less stressful. On the other hand, I may wait a long time for a food truck to roll up my street and dish out cheap, healthy, delicious dinners.
So I’ve launched my own solution. Each week, all three of my boys, aged 8, 8, and 10, choose a day when they are responsible for planning, cooking, and serving the dinner. They are under the same restrictions I am. Meals must be affordable, include at least one non-potato vegetable, fit our family schedule, and aim for an average grade of B. The boys don’t simply chop carrots or set the table. They cannot just reheat hot dogs or frozen fries. I’m there to help, of course, but the kids are in charge.
We’re three weeks into our new program and it has been a revelation for all. Thomas has served sausages with broccoli and mash; Alex, salmon alfredo; and Jon, our first-ever cheese fondue. Last weekend, I found Alex poring over a book of pasta sauces. He chose spaghetti al pomodoro for his next dish. “This looks really good” he said, “and what’s a pomodoro?”
The boys have taken pride in their newfound responsibility and in their creations. I’ve enjoyed the process, too (smoking panini hurled into the kitchen sink notwithstanding). Prep time is one-on-one time. We’ve talked about how to half one-quarter, where our salmon comes from, and how to keep oil and vinegar mixed. I feel no need to broach heavier topics, because cooking encompasses so many of life’s lessons, from time management to caring for the environment.
Our most discernible message so far, however, has been empathy. Yes, we’ve felt compassion for the long-suffering salmon and the pig that formed our sausages. But because the son who plans and serves dinner must also (with some redirection from me) field those dreaded mealtime questions, the boys discovered empathy for the evening’s cook as well.
“What’s for dinner, Mom?” Ask your brother.
“Isn’t there anything else?” Ask your brother.
“What’s in this?” Ask your brother.
And my personal favorite: “So… what’s for dessert?” Ask your brother.
Over the past few weeks, I have witnessed the cognitive wheels turning, I’ve seen the aha! moment as each son realizes how much time and effort it takes to serve a meal, how difficult it is to please everyone, and how wonderful gratitude and appreciation can feel. Surprisingly, the boys have been easier on each other than they have been on me, perhaps because their turn in the kitchen is next. I’ve heard “Good job” when the meal is to their liking and “It’s not my favorite” in lieu of a failing grade. They’ve also been more willing to try one another’s food. The boy who wouldn’t touch salad found he liked Caesar dressing; the Heinz-tomato-soup-only kid slurped up two bowls of Thai coconut-chicken.
I don’t always know if I’m on the right track as a mother. Should I push the boys to play soccer? Insist they learn violin? Maybe obligatory family Monopoly in the evenings—or just extra homework all-round? Like many parents, I’m constantly shifting priorities, trying to get the balance right. Our new meal-sharing plan won’t fix everything. It won’t build kitchens for the poor or bring salad greens to inner cities. It won’t ensure my boys get to college or, in the short term, even grant me fewer hours in the kitchen. But according to a recent study in Canada, only one third of 18-29 year olds feels confident in the kitchen. At the same time, home economics classes have been dropped from school curricula, and childhood obesity has soared as kids grow accustomed to regular doses of fast food. In this light, our weekly lessons in planning, cooking, and serving—in working together for that elusive A—seem one small but solid step in the right direction.
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