Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fixing what’s wrong with the family dinner

There’s been quite the conversation going on over at Rod Dreher’s blog these last few days about food, and cooking, and that Amanda Marcotte piece which is not at all what people seemed to have assumed it was.

What it looks like, from my perspective, is this: Amanda Marcotte shared some information from some studies that showed that working moms have lots of issues when it comes to preparing meals for their families, ranging from income and food availability to means of preparation to irregular working hours or children’s activities that interfere with mealtimes to the problem that even when Mom can make a home cooked dinner Dad and the kids seem to feel entitled to push her efforts away untasted and make themselves sandwiches or something, which makes all the grocery-buying and prep work and cooking and kitchen clean-up for the family dinner feel a bit like an exercise in futility, making microwave dinners and the drive-thru lane look better all the time.

Now, I like Rod and his blog, and I even like most of the commenters most of the time.  But it has been a bit funny to see the reactions to these posts and articles, which seems, a lot of the time, to boil down to: Cooking is easy!  There is no excuse for a mom not to do it!  Why I, a single male/single female/married man or woman with no kids/married man or woman with kids who cooks only when he/she feels like it and only for the adults in the family (the kids are picky) do it all the time!

Um, how can I say this politely?  NOT HELPING.

The whole point of Marcotte’s piece is that moms, most of them moms who work outside the home, some of them even low-income moms struggling to work odd hours during the week, find cooking for the family to be a dull, painful, time-consuming, energy-draining chore that is not worth the effort when those efforts are rejected time and time again so people can go eat cereal, or sandwiches, or a nice skillet of okra and tomatoes and curry powder and hot spices, or whatever the case might be.

I’ve said it over there, but I’ll say it again: OF COURSE cooking is easy when it involves choosing ingredients for a meal for one person or, at the most, two people, who like the same kinds of food and are similar in terms of their willingness to enjoy new culinary experiences.  But cooking for a family of assorted people of differing ages and tastes and levels of culinary adventuresomeness (not to mention different spice loves/hates, different texture issues, and different levels of, oh, let’s just go with pickiness) is no picnic.  And doing it every day when the results will be a loud chorus of “Mom, do I have to try this?” or “Honey, this is weird.  You know I don’t like weird food,” quickly becomes a nightmare for even the most pleasant, sweet, health-conscious wife and mother in the world, to say nothing of the rest of us.

Now, I say “the rest of us,” but the truth is, I got off easy.  My husband is more inclined to try new and different foods than I am, and my children have never been picky eaters.  I’ve often said that if I knew why my children were not picky eaters and could market the recipe for raising non-picky eaters I could write a book and sell millions of copies, but I know perfectly well that whatever blend of genetics and parental example and sibling example and inexplicable openness to really different foods came together to create my non-picky eaters, there was nothing I did to make it happen.  None of my children has ever refused even to taste something, and even the couple of foods they can’t have due to food allergies are foods they happily ate until we made the connection with the weird rashes that would appear right afterward.

So when I cook meals for my family, I cook meals for my family.  I never had to do that Dance of the Recipe File where one meal would be rejected by my husband and another by one girl and yet another by two of them and still another by everybody but me, etc. ad infinitum.  So I sympathize with the moms out there who do have to deal with this sort of thing, and on a daily basis; and I get a little annoyed with the people who think that because it’s so easy to cook for one person it’s just as easy too cook for five or seven or nine or twelve.

Even with a family of non-picky eaters there are times when I find cooking to be a chore--especially when other things (only 78 days till Thanksgiving!) are crowding into my time and making the inevitable realization that dinner needs to be dealt with the sort of thing that ought to be accompanied by scary music rather than a June Cleaver apron-and-heels ensemble.  So I can only imagine how much more of a chore it would be if I were not a stay-at-home mom, if I had a family full of really picky eaters, and if all I got for my efforts in the kitchen was the extra mess of cereal bowls and sandwich fixings in addition to the meal nobody ate.

Here’s the thing that really gets me: plenty of people are willing to say that all these moms really need is some gumption and some discipline.  Why, if they would just do the prep work before leaving for work in the morning!  Why, if they would just use a slow-cooker!  Why, if they would just grow pots of mung beans on the kitchen windowsills!  Why, if they would just spend all those idle weekend hours doing home canning and roasting enough meat for the rest of the week while planting an organic garden and flash-freezing ripe tomatoes instead of watching TV or getting their nails done!

But if you suggest, ever so politely, that the real discipline problem is the one that has conditioned far too many moms to put up with the outright disrespect and bad manners coming from their husbands and enough of their kids who are old enough to know better who should be willing to eat (with words of thanks and appreciation) whatever she sets in front of them instead of whining that they don’t like it or it’s not how his mom made it or they’d rather have pizza or that it looks weird or yucky, well, you’d better brace yourself, because moms actually making their kids eat dinner is a leading cause of obesity, don’t you know, or children should be permitted to express their food preferences so their sense of self isn’t damaged, or picky eaters are really just discriminating eaters with sensitive palates who will probably grow up to be food critics and wine tasters if their special gift isn’t destroyed by too many meals of meatloaf or casserole, and a really loving wife always cooks what her husband likes and goes out of her way to find out from him each day what he’d like to eat that evening, and--oh, gag me with a spoon.

It does not help women at all to tell them that they should get into the kitchen and cook those home cooked meals, and then to insinuate that they should just do what the bachelor does and cook four or five or six separate home cooked meals every night so that each person can have exactly what he or she likes, and nobody’s tastes or feelings or palates or emotions will be damaged at all--because, after all, if it’s easy to whip up one meal in a skillet, it’s just as easy to whip up half a dozen in half a dozen skillets, right?  It does not help women to blame them if they get tired of the endless food wars and pick up a frozen pizza or two on occasion.  And it does not help women to make such a fetish out of the evening meal--why is nobody crying that Americans don’t eat home cooked breakfasts or lunches anymore?  Clearly it’s because nobody expects there to be time for eggs and waffles and bacon before work and school every day, let alone the return of Dad and the kids to a nice meal of soup and sandwiches or a casserole at noon--and yet, somehow, people seem to expect that the dinner hour has been kept just as free and quasi-sacred as it was fifty or sixty years ago, when these days the dinner hour starts much later than it used to for many Americans and is hemmed in by long work commutes, two-working parent weeknight errand running, school and sports activities, and other constant demands on family time.

If we, as a culture, value the evening meal enough to want more of our fellow Americans to be able to enjoy it as a nightly ritual, the last thing we ought to be doing is assuming that everybody can just easily do whatever it is that works for us.  It’s going to take a lot more than mung beans on a windowsill to fix what’s wrong with the American family dinner.


Heather Ricco said...

Coming from a working mom who is an hour away from home, amen sister. (And yes, it is necessary that I work, my husband has had a recent career change including education for that change, so I had to keep us afloat).

Elizabeth said...

Amen, Erin.

I am one of those moms who DID cook almost every meal, including breakfasts and packed lunches, while our son was at home. We endured several bouts of long-term husbandly unemployment due to downturns and his profession, so home cooking was the cheapest way to eat. He picked up contract hours during those years, so sometimes was not only not home, he was not even in the state. So my job, which ranged from 20-40 hours/week over the decades, was absolutely necessary. As was renting out the top of our house, which has the actual bedrooms, for the first ten years we lived here.

My husband is 100% appreciative of anyone who cooks for him, and our son was only somewhat picky in phases. (Why are children willing to eat something at friends' homes that they pretended to gag on at my table?)

The REASON I was able to cook so much included that I worked at the food co-op, so shopping like the much vaunted, probably outdated image of a French housewife was easy. I just picked up the produce on the way out the door. AND I got a 15% discount on all purchases, making the organic stuff more affordable. AND I was surrounded by materials that helped me learn to cook from scratch, which is not something my mother had much to teach. AND my boss, having been a single parent, was endlessly patient with our struggles and made it possible for me to work around my spouse's changing work situation. AND a lovely Christian lady I met at the Y, and her growing family, fell in love with my son and became his second family during those years of stress. She made it completely unnecessary for me to find and pay for day care. She actually wanted my son, whose presence changed the dynamic in her home and with neighbor kids for the better. Eventually she ended up feeding whichever parent (or both) showed to pick him up, dinner. AND the neighbor lady in the same boat who also worked around her husband's hours, so we exchanged day-off child care AND fed each other's families dinner on the days we were home.

Even with all that support, there are years that I can barely remember, except for being really tired.
Working as much as possible around an ever-changing spousal schedule, the usual childhood illness non-schedule, using every vacation day for either child sick care or holidays. I am no whiner. We did what was necessary and our son, now a happily married adult, is our reward.

But if I'd read some of the comments on Rod's blogs back then, not to mention the Salatin article, I might be in prison right now.

Every problem in society gets laid at mom's feet, and heaven help her if she even mention to he academics who are studying her in her own home, that this family business is not always a pure joy.

Acerbica said...

The picky eaters seem like problem numero uno in this situation. I don't tolerate complaining about food from my kids (and my husband is too well-mannered and grateful to do it, but I absolutely would lay down the law if I had to).

I read that article and was blown away by the acceptance of the picky-eaters-controlling-the-menu paradigm. It's simply crazy. Have I loved everything I was ever served at other people's tables? No. Would I even think about whining and complaining? No. It's ridiculous. Food on the table is a gift from the cook.

L. said...

(Can you hear me applauding?)

Joan Moore said...

Picky eaters? Anyone didn't like what I cooked was informed that I was not running a restaurant! No one had any food allergies, so their choices were - eat what is served, or go hungry.