The insistence on home-cooked family meals doing more damage than good, says sociologist
It's a familiar mantra, heard from a growing chorus of celebrity chefs and food pundits: if you care about your family's well-being, take the time to cook them home-made meals.
Home cooking, we're told, is not only good for our physical health. It can also ensure our mental and spiritual well-being.
But a new study argues that this kind of thinking places an undue burden on individual families, particularly mothers and those from working-class backgrounds.
"We often have these rosy depictions of the family meal, but it's actually a space where there's a lot of tension and there's a lot of power dynamics," Sinikka Elliott, one of the researchers behind the project, told Tapestry's Mary Hynes.
Elliott is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and the co-author of a book called Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems And What We Can Do About It.
We shouldn't fall into this trap of thinking that food is the only thing that matters.- Sinikka Elliott
She and her colleagues spent five years investigating what it really takes to put food on the table, working with more than 150 American families across different classes and racial backgrounds.
Home cooking is touted as a response to issues as wide-ranging as health troubles, climate change and the sustainability of our agricultural practices, Elliott told Tapestry.
"There were a lot of messages about the power of home cooking," she said. "I wondered how these messages might be resonating or, as the case might be, not resonating with regular families."
Food as a moral issue
"In this era where we worry about the fragility of families and whether families are staying together, then family meals become another way they can present themselves as good families," she said.
But anxieties around home-based cooking as a moral issue are not new, she added.
"When you look at the historical record, you can see that at times when societies are going through massive shifts, there are anxieties about whether and what people are cooking," Elliott said.
"I think that's what we're seeing now, where we're very concerned about inequality, about the sustainability of our current practices," she added.
"Food is a very moral and symbolic issue."
A disproportionate burden
Elliott also challenges the idea that we need to get back to the kitchen, because this kind of thinking relies on a romanticization of the past, she said.
"Most families in the past couldn't achieve the wholesome home-cooked meal with the family assembled around the dinner table on a nightly basis," she said. "And those who did often depended on domestic servants to help."
"I think [home-cooked meals] have been out of reach for a lot of families. Poor white women and women of colour often weren't home to cook these meals for their own families because they were doing this work in other people's kitchens," Elliott added.
Even today, the romanticization of the family meals puts a disproportionate burden on women, Elliott told Tapestry.
"Gender inequality is exacerbated when there's a lot of focus and pressure on individuals to get feeding right," she said. "Culturally, people tend to view mothers as responsible for doing this work."
Meanwhile, Elliott also takes issue with the messaging from celebrity chefs and food writers who suggest that home cooking is simply a matter of making time.
"[The message] is simple but it makes a lot of assumptions," she said. "Lots of families in our study, and also lots of people nationwide, are now doing work that's considered precarious. So they have non-standard shifts."
"They have less control over their time than that 'make time for food' mantra would suggest," added Elliott.
Keeping food in perspective
Elliott believes we need to disentangle the idea of the kitchen meal from conversations about the importance of family time.
"There is some good research that suggests that it's important for family members to connect at some point during the day," she said. "But I think that that's gotten bundled up with the idea that it's at the family meal that we do this."
For families that have strained relationships, these meals can in fact have the opposite effect, Elliott added.
And there are plenty of other ways families can make time to connect with one another, like a game of basketball or a walk around the block, she said.
"We shouldn't fall into this trap of thinking that food is the only thing that matters," Elliott told Tapestry.
We need to keep food in perspective, she said, "meaning that we don't see our entire identities invested in whether we manage to get that healthy, from-scratch, home-cooked meal on the table, day after day."
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