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Dinner's Served: In defense of family dinners

Posted September 17, 2014 8:32 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2014 10:23 a.m. EDT

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.