The Problem In Telling People To Eat Home-Cooked Meals

New research finds home-cooked, family meals place significant stresses on many families and are simply impossible for others.

I just finished this article by Mark Bittman:

Getting Your Kids To Eat (Or At Least Try) Everything, New York Times Magazine, 8 October 2014

I enjoyed reading about his daughters. There were some parts though that made me cringe. That just didn’t seem realistic.

He talks about basing his recipes on the works of Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Shizuo Tsuji, James Beard, Pierre Franey … making salt-grilled mackerel, risotto with Parmesan rind, pork with potatoes and rosemary. He talks about the food he ate growing up: “Like the mothers of my friends, mine made dinner almost every night, a predictable rotation of lamb chops, steak, hamburgers, beef stew, meatloaf (with an impossibly dry hard-boiled egg in the middle) and overcooked chicken.” He talks about shunning processed foods while raising his daughters, “There was essentially no junk food in the house. … We didn’t fill our freezer with premade dinners.”

Then, he tells people what they should do:

Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk. … Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can.

The lifestyle he describes – all those fresh fruits and vegetables, all that food preparation – is a lifestyle of privilege. It may be healthful, but it’s just not possible for many people (to which the study below attests).

I’ve learned over the years that it doesn’t make sense to tell people what to do unless you simultaneously give them the means to do it. You don’t tell people to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, to make home-cooked meals from scratch, unless you know they have the ability – the stores, the transportation, the money to purchase, the places to store, the time to shop and prepare. You don’t tell people to eat organic, local, grass-fed, etc., for the same reasons. You can talk about the science; you can talk about the health and environmental and social benefits. You can petition government, businesses, and other institutions to help change the food landscape and do something about income inequality. But you don’t tell people to do something they can’t and then blame them or shame them when they don’t.

Bittman’s article came on the heals of this article Shaun sent me a few weeks ago:

The Problem With Home-Cooked Meals, Vox, 26 September 2014

Here’s the study it was based on. The authors, all sociologists, followed 150 mothers for 18 months, interviewing them and observing how they fed their families.

The Joy Of Cooking?, Contexts (a journal of the American Sociological Association), Summer 2014 (Or here.)

And the press release. The title sums up their work: ‘Family Meal’ Ideal Is Stressful, Impossible for Many Families, North Carolina State University, September 2014

I read their paper a few weeks ago but it now looks to be behind a pay wall. Long live capitalism. The authors called out the likes of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman for romanticizing cooking. From Vox:

For these families, tossing a salad wasn’t simple at all [Bittman said it was]. Those who lacked reliable transportation only grocery shopped once each month, making perishable foods impractical. … Roasting a chicken requires time between finishing work and serving dinner.

The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint,” they write in the journal Contexts. “Romantic depictions of cooking assume that everyone has a home, that family members are home eating at the same time, and that kitchens and dining spaces are equipped and safe. This is not necessarily the case for the families we met.”

I can’t believe they said it, “an elite foodie standpoint.” I have difficulty saying it on my blog. Here they say it in a peer-reviewed journal. They invite backlash, and they got it.

The author of the Vox article, Sarah Kliff (SK) interviewed one of the study’s authors, Sarah Bowen (SB), and asked:

SK: Is there a negative consequence to encouraging people to make more home-cooked meals? Does it set up a standard that people can’t reach?

SB: I guess I would dodge the question a little bit, and say I think what is more important is making sure that people have the opportunity to eat good meals with their families. In order for all families to have that opportunity, we need to address some of these larger issues. Having the opportunity to eat good meals shouldn’t just be a privilege. So for me, what’s really important is looking at how we change that.

Kliff asked a leading question, rather two leading questions. I agree with her assumptions … that there is a negative consequence to encouraging people to make more home-cooked meals, and that it sets up a standard that many people can’t reach.

SB said, “Having the opportunity to eat good meals shouldn’t just be a privilege.” It is a privilege, in the United States today, in this economy, it is a privilege. I don’t see any harm in admitting this. I think it can be a motivator for change.

The authors cite three obstacles to eating healthy, home-cooked meals – lack of time, lack of money, and inability to accommodate everyone’s tastes. They give some solutions, including food trucks and community kitchens. I don’t see how a community kitchen can feed a family whose household head gets home from work at 8:00 pm. Can a food truck provide a higher quality of food than a kitchen? What about food safety? Who would provide the labor? The food? How do you raise funds?

It seems to me that low wages and an increasing divergence in the distribution of income are at the heart of peoples’ food struggles. Here’s a chart that shows why I think it’s becoming more difficult for a lot of people to produce high-quality, home-cooked meals on a regular basis:

Source: The Most Important Chart About The American Economy You’ll See This Year, Vox, 25 September 2014

One more thing, from Vox:

SK: Was there anything in doing this research that surprised you?

SB: How much people were cooking. We hear all of the time that Americans have stopped cooking. A lot of the families in our study were cooking every night, especially the poorest families. They couldn’t afford to eat fast food and a lot didn’t have cars. People were cooking a lot and that surprised me a little, because of how much we hear that the opposite is true.

The USDA has published reports for years saying that lower income people cook more. I don’t know why the opposite perception persists.

Eating the way Bittman describes is great. Telling people to eat that way when they can’t is just bragging.

Is Home Cooking A Privilege?
Who Does Most Of The Cooking In The US?
The Joy Of Cooking? Yeah Right

5 thoughts on “The Problem In Telling People To Eat Home-Cooked Meals

  1. Wallace

    Someone is fired up. Pay walls are just another form of censorship. Keep the information away from the general public so they can be influenced by articles like Bittman’s and that whole fat is back crap.


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