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Research and Innovation

‘Family Meal’ Ideal Is Stressful, Impossible for Many Families

For Immediate Release

Magazines, television and other popular media increasingly urge families to return to the kitchen, stressing the importance of home-cooked meals and family dinners to physical health and family well-being. But new research findings from North Carolina State University show that home cooking and family meals place significant stresses on many families – and are simply impossible for others.

“We wanted to understand the relationship between this ideal that is presented in popular culture and the realities that people live with when it comes to feeding their children,” says Dr. Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the ongoing study.

The researchers interviewed 150 female caregivers in families with children between the ages of 2 and 8, as well as conducting in-depth observations of 12 of these families for a total of 250 hours.

“We found that middle-class, working-class, and poor families faced some similar challenges,” says Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at NC State who co-authored the paper. “For example, mothers from all backgrounds reported difficulty in finding time to prepare meals that everyone in the family would be willing to eat.”

A lack of transportation and limited finances make it difficult for mothers in poor families to provide their children with fresh produce.
A lack of transportation and limited finances make it difficult for mothers in poor families to provide their children with fresh produce.

In addition, middle-class mothers reported being torn between their desire to spend quality time with their children and the expectation that they needed to provide the children with a home-cooked meal.

But, while all families reported financial considerations as a factor in meal planning, finances affected family decisions in very different ways.

For example, middle-class mothers were concerned that they weren’t able to give their kids the best possible meals because they couldn’t afford to buy all organic foods.

Poor families, meanwhile, faced more severe restrictions. Their financial limitations made it more difficult for them to afford fresh produce, find transportation to grocery stories, or have access to the kitchen tools needed to prepare meals – such as sharp knives, stoves, or pots and pans.

“Poor mothers also skipped meals and stood in long lines at non-profit food pantries to provide food for their children,” Bowen says.

“This idea of a home-cooked meal is appealing, but it’s unrealistic for a lot of families,” Bowen adds. “We as a society need to develop creative solutions to support families and help share the work of providing kids with healthy meals.”

“There are a lot of ways we could do this, from community kitchens where families work together to arranging to-go meals from schools,” Elliott says. “There is no one answer. But we hope this work inspires people to start thinking outside the family kitchen about broader things we as a society can do when it comes to food and health.”

The paper, “The Joy of Cooking?,” is published online in Contexts. The paper was co-authored by Dr. Joslyn Brenton, an assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College and former Ph.D. student at NC State. This project was supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant number 2011-68001-30103 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“The Joy of Cooking?”

Authors: Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliott, North Carolina State University; Joslyn Brenton, Ithaca College

Published: Summer 2014, Contexts

DOI: 10.1177/1536504214545755

Abstract: Sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton offer a critique of the increasingly prevalent message that reforming the food system necessarily entails a return to the kitchen.  They argue that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.

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  1. Sitting across the dinner table from your children is time well-spent. How can we make it easier on working parents to provide a home-cooked meal in this busy world? What do you think about schools sending home easy, healthy and affordable recipes as non-required but encouraged “homework?”

  2. “In addition, middle-class mothers reported being torn between their desire to spend quality time with their children and the expectation that they needed to provide the children with a home-cooked meal.”

    I think that if mothers present the evening’s situation in a positive light, they may not have to worry about “quality time” vs. “quality meal”. Since the truth is that some nights it’s one and other nights it’s the other, we should try to find peace when we give it our best shot. I have served both big complicated meals, and pancakes. We serve it with a prayer and a smile and move on. We never stop trying to sit down together for dinner as a family. I don’t need a study to tell me that it is or is not important because I know through experience that it is VERY important to our family. I hope that people will not use these study results to throw in the towel on family dinners….

  3. One of my concerns is, what has made them think they need organic groceries which they feel they can’t afford? And where are they eating out for less than they can eat at home and still getting organic meals? They’re fooling themselves or being fooled by marketing shams if this is happening. Only a few items really matter and our certification process for organic foods is still being developed so I’m not sure I’d spend my gas money on the difference between regular and organic food if it came down to it.
    I don’t want hormones in the meat, milk or chicken but those items aren’t marked “organic” and they don’t don’t cost extra. Folks just have to read lables.
    Bert, Retired FACS Teacher

  4. For many years schools and Cooperative Extension has offered education on nutrition and cooking. Unfortunately, in too many places decisions have been made to remove family and consumer sciences courses from the curriculum and to only offer Extension programming to low income families and individuals. Thus, we’ve systematically taken away education that helped all citizens with these issues. Yes, our lives are extremely busy and stressful these days, but if everyone learned nutrition and cooking, the short cuts would be known and the decisions would be less stressful. I suspect researchers would find that the increase in stressfulness of family meals accelerated after schools lost family and consumer sciences programs (teachers) and communities lost family and consumer sciences extension agents/educators. The Landgrant system was established a century ago to address issues like these.

    1. I agree. We use to have Master Mix recipes and one pot meals, cooking ahead and freezing half, etc. Family and Consumer Ed is more important now than ever to educate young families to prioritize their activities and food choices.

  5. Can I be sarcastic?
    Our modern way of life makes it stressful to find time to share a home cooked meal. No way we can slow down, so let’s find another way: let’s find a shortcut for healthy food…and a shortcut to family time.
    This is how we have been thinking for years. Isn’t it time to see that logic is flawed?

  6. I agree Mary. Did these parents have limited experience with cooking? It just doesn’t have to take that long- or cost that much to cook a family meal. Maybe children or some family members need to eat on a different schedule than other household members, but surely families can find time to sit down at the kitchen table together at some point in the evening.

  7. how do middle class families weigh the costs/benefits of making time for healthy family meals?
    do the costs/benefits of the activities that are keeping them from healthy meal time actually outweighing the
    the costs/benefits of eating healthy together?

    I’m not sure they are stopping to figure out why they don’t have time for dinner….and realize they aren’t powerless to make change

  8. And there are some families where relationships are so toxic that family meals are not healthy psychologically.