Family dinners are yet another responsibility I feel pressured to get right. And new research says I’m not alone.
Man, do I love food. I love eating food, I love buying food, I love thinking about food. At any given moment, I’m either snacking, pondering my next meal, or scouring Pinterest for recipes, both healthy and sinful. Food pics are like porn to me. Food language is like poetry. To me, food is a gift and a pleasure.
Thankfully, my twin boys seem to have inherited my love of food. Man, can they eat. They enjoy a variety of flavors and are willing to try anything, even if they ultimately realize that Dijon mustard probably is too spicy. My husband is a foodie himself, although with fairly particular tastes. For example, he’d eat sushi or Indian food every night of the week, but he won’t eat cooked fish and has a bizarre aversion to Thai food (which might be the definition of insanity).
Two food lovers raising food lovers—you’d think mealtime would be a communal blissfest, full of culinary excitement and tickled palates. Well, it’s not. In fact, it’s far from it. Despite the love of eating that my entire family shares, actually cooking for these people has sucked almost all of the joy out of it.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. A recent study done at North Carolina State University found that whipping up family meals actually creates so much stress, particularly for women, that it’s not even worth all of the psychological and nutritional benefits.
After interviewing and observing mothers and families, the researchers learned 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.” Adding to the pressure: A sense that these from-scratch dinners somehow make you a better mother, and make your family stronger.
Yeah, it’s a nice thought, but these aren’t the 1950s anymore when happy homemakers had a roasted chicken and a cold beer waiting when hubby walked through the door. These days, women work, often past the dinner hour. It’s just not feasible to throw together a healthy meal in 30 minutes or less, every single night. Even women who may have the time, may not have the energy, after working a full day or just managing the needs of children since the crack of friggin’ dawn.
That being said, I want to feed my family healthy foods. I want to try new recipes and experiment with cooking techniques and finally convince my husband that quinoa is the bomb. I want to pour myself a glass of wine, turn on some Tom Petty, and zone out with my mise en place.
Unfortunately though, it just doesn’t work out that way.
First of all, it’s impossible to cook in peace when I’ve got toddlers demanding my attention. And they’re the push-the-shiny-red-button kind of kids who just have to see how hot the oven is and seem drawn by magnetic force to sharp objects. I don’t really have the ability to just disappear into the kitchen.
Also, I’m over the meal planning. Over it. I’m sick of having to decide what three or four different people are going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I’m sick of getting super-psyched about some recipe that yields nothing more than a lukewarm response. I once spent two hours making a low-fat shepherd’s pie, so sure this would be the miracle, please-all food. It was delicious, but both my kids decided, “I no like it” and just squashed the whole thing up in their grubby, ungrateful hands. No explanation, no valid reason, just yucky.
On special occasions, I’ve made my husband beef Wellington, chocolate mousse, and slow-cooked Bolognese that, sure, he appreciated, but probably didn’t enjoy any more than his nightly Drumstick cone or the garlic and olive oil pasta I make every Sunday. And while I love stumbling upon cool new recipes and taking on the culinary challenge, sometimes they require so many different ingredients, it would be cheaper just to go out.
Honestly, I often think, “Why do I even bother?” And when my husband goes out of town, I don’t. For the boys, I’ll microwave some frozen meatballs, boil up a box of mac-n-cheese and dinner is served. Once my kids are in bed, I curl up on the couch with a Trader Joe’s turkey corn dog and pretzel chips—totally, utterly fulfilled. But I know we can’t have microwave dinners most nights. I mean, we could, but we can’t.
Sadly, since becoming a mother, cooking has become just one more thing on my long list of to-do’s. It’s yet another responsibility I feel pressured to get right. It’s another way I’m supposed to make everyone happy. Except, it’s a thankless task. As much as my kids love food, they’ll still push some things away, or take tiny bites that they then spit out. I cringe as I slide the painstakingly prepared, partially-chewed meal into the trash. Such a waste.
My husband at least eats my thoughtful meals, but often doesn’t acknowledge the effort. Instead of asking, “How do I look?” I’ll ask, “How does it taste?” and his responses are rarely as effusive as I had hoped. Yes, he tells me I’m a great cook and that he loves what I make, but I feel like he just always prefers the same five or six dinner standards.
“But you love to cook,” my husband says, confused when I say that I just don’t have it in me to stand over the stove after a long day. “What do we have?” he responds when I ask what he wants for dinner. I think that he thinks he’s being nice and accommodating when he tells me that, “Anything is fine, I don’t care.” Really though, I would pay him $5 million dollars if he would just make a decision. Hell, I’d give him $1 million dollars if he would just pick a protein, any protein. Seriously, sometimes I think I need to just hand him the bread and peanut butter and go on strike.
And I think that this is really the problem for moms who do the cooking: The mealtime responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders (muscled from all of that stirring). Our partners really need to share the load, whether it’s doing the grocery shopping, getting involved in the meal planning, or coming home with take out so that we can have a night off. We have to start asking, and if that doesn’t work, we have to start insisting. I think some appreciation would go a long way as well.
If our families want delicious, thoughtful, nutritious home-cooked meals, the burden of cooking needs to be lifted. The cook needs some help and she needs some gratitude. When a mom’s efforts are rewarded and appreciated, she’s encouraged to keep at it. When her hard work falls on deaf palates—or just meh ones—she wants to throw in the dish towel.
Many moms who cook, like myself, have a love/hate relationship with our kitchen. If we’re ever expected to fall back in love with cooking, the family meal needs to stop feeling like a chore.
Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.