Study finds that home-cooking disproportionately burdens mothers

BY Charles Pulliam-Moore  September 4, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
Photo by Flickr user malloreigh

Photo by Flickr user malloreigh

A team of researchers at North Carolina State University published a study challenging the idea that home-cooked meals are ultimately “better” for the family as a whole.

Sociologists and anthropologists by training, the previous work of study authors Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott concentrates on health and low-income families’ infrastructural access to food. Over the course of a year, the researchers collected interviews from 150 families of various racial makeups and socioeconomic backgrounds and more than 250 hours worth of ethnographic observation.

Their time spent accompanying parents shuttling children to checkups, grocery shopping, and, of course, preparing food, led the team to a set of real world conclusions at odds with stereotypical parenting wisdom. For all of the health benefits associated with food prepared at home, the task presented parents, particularly mothers, with a slew of economic and interpersonal stressors.

“One could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen,” their abstract reads. “Yet in reality, home-cooked meals rarely look this good. Leanne, for example, who held down a minimum-wage job while taking classes for an associate’s degree, often spent her valuable time preparing meals, only to be rewarded with family members’ complaints — or disinterest.”

The traditional standards of “good mothering,” the team posits, demanded that mothers manage an unrealistic balance of their own time, money, energy and focus, all while catering to the desires of their families. Participants in the study reported that picky eating habits from spouses and children, plus mismatched schedules, made arranging specific meals and mealtimes a Sisyphean effort.

Blue Apron, a New York City-based startup, is one of about 57 “food tech” companies backed by venture capitalists in the past three years looking to take some of the hassle out of coordinating dinners. For about $10 per person, Blue Apron says, the service will send subscribers a diverse selection of healthy, well thought-out meals. While mothers voiced their desire to provide their families with a variety of different kinds of foods, services like Blue Apron still require time to actually cook the food, and in many cases are cost prohibitive.

Bowen, Brenton and Elliott suggest that a solution may exist in innovative forms of food preparation and delivery, such as robust meal programs at school or in the workplace.

So let’s move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.