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Dinner's Served: In defense of family dinners

Posted September 17, 2014
Updated September 18, 2014

My family hated this meal. I was glad for the leftovers.

With all due respect to the group of N.C. State sociologists who claimed in a recent report that home cooking is an ideal that merely reflects an "elite foodie standpoint," I say, as I look at the stack of dishes that I need to put away from last's night dinner, wait ... what?

As countless officials and food experts say healthier eating needs to start in home kitchens, the study questions whether the onus really should be put on home cooking, a task that typically falls to dear old mom.

The N.C. State-based team came up with their conclusions after conducting interviews with 150 black, white and Latina mothers from all walks of life and 250 hours of observations with working-class and poor families.

"The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring," they write. "Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the frontline in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held."

The report says it's unrealistic for moms to meet that elitist challenge what with the time it takes to prepare meals, the cost and because sometimes their kids and significant others don't want to eat what they cook.

Let me agree momentarily with the researchers. For poor and homeless families, putting together a wholesome meal each night for the family is likely a nearly impossible task. According to the North Carolina Association of Feeding America Food Banks, nearly 27 percent of kids under the age of 18 in the state don't have access to affordable, nutritious food. North Carolina has some of the highest percentages of hungry kids in the United States, a sad statistic.

Some families have no kitchen to cook in. Some have no food to cook in the kitchen they have. I'm glad for groups like food banks and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, which not only provides food to hungry families, but helps them learn ways to provide for themselves.

I'm talking about the rest of us. The middle class families whose kids don't know what it means to really go hungry. The families who know exactly where their next meal will come from because there is something in the cupboard and refrigerator that they can toss together.

Where am I coming from? My family is among the middle class ranks. I spend about $125, give or take $25, a week on food and household goods for my family of four. We eat out about once a week. Every other meal is either eaten at home or packed at home and eaten at school or work. A big thanks to Faye Prosser, the WRAL Smart Shopper, who has the scoop on deals at the grocery store and helps me identify the best prices each week.

I work from home right now, but for 4 1/2 years I was a full-time working mom with a young daughter in day care. Now, I'm often carting kids to various activities during the dinner prep hour. My husband, a better cook than me, sometimes helps out by grilling up a bunch of meat for the week on a Sunday or doing the final dinner prep while I'm carpooling. But mostly, meals are my domain. 

I know all about the crunch time between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. I know what it's like to rush to get something on the table, help with homework and mediate arguments with little kids running under foot.

I do cook quite a bit from scratch, but it's not because "experts advise" this practice, the study says. I cook from scratch because that's how my mom cooked, her mom cooked, her grandmother cooked, and so on. They were farmers. I never lived on a farm, but that's the food I grew up eating and what I learned to cook.

Do I do this because I feel like cooking food is the hallmark of "good mothering," as the report suggests? 

No. I do it because we've got to eat to live and it's not practical or affordable for my family to eat every meal out.

Do I strive to meet the ideals of foodies like Michael Pollan as I put a pot of water on the stove to boil, as the report also suggests? 

No. I'm happy to admit that I'm a fan of cookbook author and journalist Mark Bittman and find many of his recipes incredibly easy. And, because my nine-year-old daughter is a fan, we have a subscription to the Food Network magazine where I also find some very easy recipes. But at 6 p.m., I'm just trying to get some food on the table. Elite foodies are far from my mind.

Do I hang my head low when my kids or husband don't like what I cook, as the report suggests is a reason why home cooking is so hard?

Are you kidding me? My job is to provide nutritious meals and snacks to my family. Their job is to decide how much of it they want to eat. I can't force them to eat anything. I typically try to include something I know my kids will like in a meal, but I can't do it all of the time. And they need regular opportunities to try new foods.

Just ask my family about last Friday's meal of rice and lentils. I tucked right into that dish. My kids and husband weren't fans. Did I care? No. I loved it. I'm happy to be eating the leftovers. They had what we call "no thank you helpings" and filled up on salad and corn bread.

If my kids don't eat dinner, they know there's no more food until breakfast time. It's their choice how much they eat at any meal. Unless they are sick, I do not make separate meals.

There certainly are alternatives to the nightly dinner rush. The study's authors suggest town dinners or healthy food trucks (though I question whether the cost of those is really feasible for the families their study seems to focus on). 

A friend has a weekly dinner rotation with another friend. She makes a meal for both families one night and the other makes a meal for both families the other night. So, for at least one night, all my friend has to do is heat something up. 

My neighbors and I sometimes get together for a potluck-style dinner, another easy way to make dinner time more fun for the adults and kids in the equation. A week ago, the adults actually ate a meal on our own because the kids were having such a fun time playing they didn't want to stop for dinner. They ate while we cleaned up.

How do I manage to feed my family without hating the work? Easy. I don't flog myself if dinner isn't Pinterest-perfect. I don't care if everybody else hates what I cook. I just put food on the table, because we all need to eat, and move on.

So maybe that's another solution for the problems these researchers write about. If you're feeling stressed at dinner time and have the resources to provide your family nutritious meals three times a day, maybe it's just time to cut yourself a break.

Here are my go-to weeknight meals. I try to have chopped vegetables, fruit or a salad in the refrigerator. Most of these take about 20 minutes to get on the table each night.

  • Black beans and rice. Drain and rinse a can of black beans and heat it up. Mix in a little cumin if you want or get fancy with sauteed onion and green pepper. Or, better yet, open up a can of flavored black beans (we like Trader Joe's version). Serve over rice and with cheese, salsa and sour cream if you have it.
  • Sandwiches
  • Scrambled eggs and pancakes (from the freezer, taken from the leftovers from the batch made over the weekend)
  • Slow cooker recipes like this one for beef stew and this one for spaghetti sauce.
  • Cheese quesadillas. Add in some leftover chopped meat and veggies if you have them on hand.
  • Hot dogs and macaroni and cheese
  • Tomato soup and grilled cheese (or cheese and crackers if you don't want to go to the trouble)
  • Pasta and jarred pasta sauce. Drain and rinse a can of white beans and mix it with the sauce for added protein. Get really fancy by putting some mozzarella cheese on top and baking for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.
  • Egg and cheese bagel sandwiches
  • Chef salad. I just pull out the salad in the refrigerator, chop up some deli meat and cheese and serve with some crackers or bread. I usually have boiled eggs on hand to throw in.

If I get fancy and really cook something during the week, I try to make sure that there's enough for a couple of meals. 

Regardless of what I'm serving that night, the conversation around the family dinner table is the same. We share stories of our days, debate and ask questions. There are reminders about table manners and lessons on cleaning up. And we laugh. A lot.

That's the most important part of all of this. 

Sarah is the mom of two and Go Ask Mom's editor.

15 Comments

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  • raesmom1612 Sep 19, 2014

    I second Sarah as to what Faye does over at the Smart Shopper link. I have been following her for 2 yrs now and I have been able to cut my grocery bill by a lot (at least 50%-70%) and we eat at home at least 6 days a week. I am a mom of a young child, wife of a police officer (with a crazy schedule), and I work 40+ hours a week. Love her (and Sarah's) blog :) They help out so much!!

  • Raleigh Rocks 1 Sep 19, 2014

    Its cheaper to fix a meal than to eat out right? and its better for the family relationship.

  • Claytonmomof2 Sep 18, 2014

    There's alot to be said for a family dinner around the table! It has positive impacts further than people realize.

  • Sarah Hall Sep 18, 2014
    user avatar

    @GLARG ... we don't eat meat for every meal. So when he grills on Sunday, that takes us to Wednesday usually for meats for lunches and dinners. And then we'll have pasta, beans and rice, homemade pizza, sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, etc. the other nights.

    The lentils and rice was really good! And, from my point of view, not that much different than the beans and rice we usually eat.

    Sarah

  • kastagg Sep 18, 2014

    I feel that the family dinner is really very important. This is a great time for my family to connect and something we strive to make happen. One of the reasons it is so successful is that my husband makes time to help with groceries, cooking and gardening. I think that with all the demands on families today it has to be a family effort. Some of my best memories involve the kitchen table and enjoying whatever the meal was. I think in a world where it is easy to be disconnected we need this time. Anyway, that's my soapbox.

  • Sarah Hall Sep 18, 2014
    user avatar

    I did just add links for those crock pot recipes at the bottom.

    Sarah

  • glarg Sep 18, 2014

    I agree with most points, but there really was no excuse for serving that rice and lentil mixture.

    Also not so sure about grilling all the meat for the week on one day....

  • busyb97 Sep 18, 2014

    I agree with you in all points!

    Dinner doesnt have to be complicated or a big time commitment. It does take some experimenting sometimes, but there are TONS of recipes that are quick prep. Google or search pinterest for 30 minute meals to start. Keep a notebook of family favorites (and maybe the "never agains") and include how long they took. Involve the kids if they are older...at least for cleanup.

    The money saved and the health of your family (since you know what is in the meal or can choose) is worth it! And sometimes, the time! A sit down restaurant isnt fast, and take out or fast food isnt healthy (thinking multiple visits a week).

    Have a couple go to fast meals for the rush hour nights. I use several Pampered Chef recipes, like skillet lasagna, zesty ravioli, anything chicken (microwave...so juicy in our Deep Covered Baker). Sorry, sounds like a commercial, but it is SO true!!

    What do reseachers know? ;-)

  • Sarah Hall Sep 18, 2014
    user avatar

    I give all of the credit to Faye, the Smart Shopper, for the grocery bill @creecht! And I do meal plan every weekend so I know what we're eating during the week. I also don't buy many prepared snack foods and any drinks other than milk and OJ. So no Goldfish, fruit snacks, cereal bars, etc. For snacks, we pop our own popcorn, have fruit, cheese ...

    @MonkeyFace: My family isn't a big fan of some of the things I've cooked in the slow cooker. Some of the meats do come out rubbery. What works for me are stews, soups and sauces - like spaghetti sauce. Not as many texture issues. I've also found that chicken cooked for four hours in the slow cooker is better than chicken cooked for eight hours. Of course, that's not doable if you're dumping food in the pot before work and can't come home in four hours to get it out.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Sarah (Go Ask Mom editor)

  • Kristin Byrne Sep 18, 2014
    user avatar

    If we didn't like what was for dinner, we didn't eat. Simple as that. However, we still had to stay at the table until everyone was finished. Dinner was family time.

    It amazes me when I hear someone complain about having to make several different meals for each member of the family at dinner time. I think my mom would have keeled over from laughing too hard if someone had suggested she make each of us (family of 6) a separate meal.

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