THE KITCHEN — Picture a happy family gathered around a table, feasting on a hot, organic, made-from-scratch meal as they laugh over the day’s adventures.
While it sounds like the American dream, there’s something missing from this imagery of the dinnertime routine so many food gurus, public officials, nutritionists and celebrity chefs call the “fix” to the country’s rising obesity epidemic and the key to a “happy family” — a frazzled mother, covered in sauce, nursing a major headache and begging her kids to eat what she’s spent hours preparing, according to a new study.
Researchers from North Carolina State University set out to answer the question, is the joy of cooking really worth the cost?
The team interviewed 150 moms from diverse backgrounds. Researchers tagged along with 12 families during grocery outings, meals and trips to the pediatrician. They spent more than 250 hours observing these hard-working women.
One factor remained consistent in the majority of these moms — keeping up with family meals added some serious and significant stress to their lives.
“It didn’t matter if they were poor, working class, or middle class, there are added burdens being placed on mothers and on families today,” Sinikka Elliott, an NCSU associate sociology professor, told TODAY Parents. “The expectations are getting ramped up and are increasingly getting harder to meet.”
The planning and execution of family meals still lies primarily with the mother, despite more dads being actively involved in domestic duties, according to researchers. With multiple channels, websites, blogs and Instagram accounts devoted to the art of culinary creation, many mothers feel pressure to tackle what researchers call “the idealized vision of home-cooked meals” on a daily basis.
“I feel pressure but mostly from myself,” said Emily Jones, a Utah mom. “I love looking at yummy, healthy recipes online and making a menu, but I rarely stick to it. Dinnertime is awful — screaming kids who won't touch what I prepare. They usually end up in their room while I eat in peace.”
It’s no small task, especially when one considers the time, money and effort required to achieve this lofty goal. And then there’s the small matter of little palates that simply won’t go for anything that doesn’t come in a dinosaur shape.
“The more effort I put into a meal, the less likely my kids are to eat it,” said Megan Nydegger, a Seattle mother to two young boys.
The study found low-income moms cooked the most, since eating out is more expensive. However, the meals prepared didn’t always fit the “ideal standard” since healthy, fresh ingredients tend to cost a great deal more than the alternative. It costs $1.50 more per day — about $500 per person per year — to eat a healthier diet than a less healthy diet, according to a recent global food price study out of Harvard.
In addition, poorer mothers faced unpredictable work schedules and unreliable transportation — factors that hampered their ability to do what they wanted in the kitchen.
But even middle-class moms who lived on incomes of more than $100,000 felt the financial burden associated with the “ideal meal.” Researchers found many of these women were forced to make tradeoffs like buying less-healthy processed food or fewer organic items in order to stick to their budgets.
Another hurdle that plagued the moms: time.
For most mothers, each day is a delicate dance of carpool, cleaning, working, homework and about a million other things. Earlier this year, Salary.com reported the average American stay-at-home mom juggles about 96.5 hours of work a week, while her professional counterpart spends about 60 hours a week on domestic duties. That’s in addition to her 40-hour work week.
Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see why finding time to plan for and prepare good meals is extremely challenging.
“To be sure, under the right circumstances one could enjoy a slow-cooked meal made with fresh and organic ingredients,” said study co-author Joslyn Brenton, an assistant professor at Ithica College. “But the question is what American that you know of actually lives in these circumstances?”
When it comes down to it, the study authors said, putting so much emphasis on “romanticized” home cooking is unfair to the women who hang their aprons there. It’s time, they said, to cut them some slack.
“The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held,” the study authors wrote. “Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.”
While the study didn’t focus on an overall solution to the stress associated with nightly gourmet feasts, authors did suggest that a little creativity might do the trick.
“How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks?” they wrote. “Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. … 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.”