Photograph by Matt MacGillivray, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Matt MacGillivray, Creative Commons 2.0

Why We Need to Rethink Home-Cooked Meals

Guest post written by Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen, sociologists from North Carolina State University and Joslyn Brenton a sociologist at Ithaca College

The amount of time Americans spend cooking meals at home has fallen by half since the mid-1960s, leading some influential voices to worry that—given the plethora of options we have to make quick, inexpensive meals—we have forgotten how to cook.

Mothers have reduced the amount of time they spend in the kitchen since the 1960s while fathers have almost quadrupled their time (even so, mothers still spend twice as much time cooking). Yet, despite this, today’s parents are not better off financially than they were five decades ago—and parents actually have less free time these days than did past generations. When families are squeezed for time and money, the gold standard for feeding the family is home-cooked meals made from scratch.

In 2012-2013, our research team interviewed a diverse group of 150 mothers of young children about their experiences feeding their families. We also observed 12 of these households as they shopped for, prepared, and ate food. The mothers in our study were cooking on average five nights a week. Many were prepping vegetables and cooking in bulk on the weekends, using crockpots to save time, and getting children involved in cooking, in an effort to make sure their families ate a good meal at the end of the day.

Yet despite these and other impressive efforts, mothers felt they were falling short. Many said there was never enough time in the day to do it “right.” And contrary to rosy images of everyone sitting around the table enjoying a hearty, wholesome meal, for most families, cooking was filled with time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others. It became clear to us that the solution to feeding American families can’t just come from individual kitchens.

Instead of continuing to suggest ways that mothers (and fathers) can try harder, let’s broaden this conversation to consider how to make it possible for families to enjoy a meal at the end of the day without expecting the work of creating this meal to happen solely in the home. For families that can afford it, the market has answers.

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Ness Creek Music Festival has a community kitchen where people donate food and volunteers cook communal suppers. Photograph by Jen Kim, Creative Commons 2.0

Upscale stores like Whole Foods have expanded their line of prepared foods, including weekday “meal plans,” with all foods prepared in-house. For those who want to cook and have the money, companies like Blue Apron make it “fun and easy,” delivering recipes and pre-portioned ingredients for complete meals every week. Grocery stores and AmazonFresh will also deliver food to your door, depending on where you live.

While these services may ease some of the pressures around preparing family meals for well-off Americans, they do little to address the inequalities in our food system and may actually help widen them. New research out of Harvard suggests a growing gap between the quality of foods that rich and poor people eat.  We need to come up with solutions that work for a broad array of families. This will involve addressing stagnating wages, rising housing costs, and unstable and irregular work hours, but there are other solutions, too.

To-go meals from schools, community suppers, and healthy food trucks could all help fill the cooking gap. While school food has gotten a bad rap, school kitchens are capable of producing healthy, tasty food, especially when they link up with local farmers. And it’s not just schools. Large daycares and churches often have commercial kitchens too. Buying in bulk and having the space to store and prepare food on a large scale saves money and could provide families with hearty, affordable dinners, such as lasagna or soups, to reheat at the end of the day.

Making these meals available on a sliding scale would also help share the expense of feeding families and equalize people’s access to food. We should also revive the important link between food and community. Overall, American families lack institutional supports to ease the economic and social burdens of parenthood.

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A group of people wait for dinner outside the Ness Creek communal kitchen. Photograph by Jen Kim, Creative Commons 2.0

Sociologist Robin Simon found that parents experience higher levels of depression and lower levels of emotional well-being compared to their childless peers. One reason is that parenting too often happens in social isolation with little assistance from family members, friends, neighbors, or the larger community.

Some of the lower-income mothers we interviewed talked about sharing food during hard times and cooking with friends, neighbors, and family members as a way to spread the work of feeding the family and share the pleasure food brings people. That’s a lesson we can draw from.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, where this study was conducted, the Oak City Outreach Center opened its doors this summer to help address hunger. It serves the community three meals a day on the weekends in a warm, inviting setting. Town Hall and church suppers can also bring people together to enjoy a meal in the company of others. Healthy food trucks and mobile markets that deliver food to families’ doorsteps can give more Americans access to fresh food and cut down on the amount of time it takes to prepare meals.

While these options already exist in many places, they are not financially viable for most families. To foster solutions that will work for a wider range of people, we need to support businesses and organizations that serve diverse customers. For example, Demetrius Hunter started Grocers on Wheels not long after the only supermarket in one of Raleigh’s poorest neighborhoods shut its doors. Grocers on Wheels brings fresh produce, dairy, and meats to food-insecure residents, allowing people to pay with food stamps and offering credit to those who have difficulty paying. Hunter not only delivers food, he helps form a web of community ties and shows that someone cares.

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Dinner is served from the Ness Creek communal kitchen. Photograph by Jen Kim, Creative Commons 2.0

Finally, we need to uncouple the “package deal” that links good mothering with preparing wholesome family dinners from scratch. The mothers in our study were doing a lot of cooking, but still felt stressed and inadequate. Research suggests that there are multiple aspects of family life that are good for health. Ultimately, having the time to be together may be as important to health as what’s on the table.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.