Top | Dinner Guest Blog
(post, Megan Scott)
When I tell people that I grew up in a household where we ate dinner as a family almost every weeknight, I get their attention. When I tell them that my mother worked full time and that I have two sisters, they are surprised. When I add that not only did she prepare dinner for us after a long day of work, but she also made us breakfast many days of the week, they are incredulous. But the facts remain: my mother, a working middle-class mother of three girls, kept us around the family table. We didn't always like it, and the conversation was not always stimulating, but we ate together almost every night, and regardless of what phases we were going through, we all ate the same thing. The rule was unspoken but understood: If my mother prepared it, we ate it. In recent years, many in the media have bemoaned the loss of the family dinner, and exhorted us to eat together again. According to a recent NPR poll, about half of American families don't manage to eat dinner together; if they do, they don't always share the same foods. And a quarter of families eat dinner with a TV or other electronic device turned on. [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The start of a healthful meal."] Many convincing reasons are cited to explain the way we eat today, including cost (fresh whole foods are often more expensive than packaged processed foods) and time (preparing those fresh whole foods generally takes longer than heating up a microwaveable meal). And while we usually understand that a cheap box of freeze-dried whatever will eventually translate into expensive health-care costs later in life, we tend to forget this complex calculation when we're rushing through the grocery store at the end of the day. But for the sake of our physical health and the health of our families, figuring out the best use of our food dollars and taking the time to prepare and enjoy a meal together are worth braving the learning curve. My one big tip in the budget department is to avoid the conventional supermarket. You will pay more for produce, especially organic produce. You will be more likely to stock up on processed foods, just because they're abundant and cheap. And you will, despite the seeming abundance, actually have fewer choices available — because the options presented are driven by marketing and consumer demand, not health. For reasonably priced and healthy ingredients, shop at farmers' markets, ethnic grocery stores, and stores with large bulk-bin sections. For dry goods you use on a regular basis, such as flour or nut butters or rice, consider buying in quantity (for instance, a 25-pound bag of flour) from a local food cooperative or buying club. As for time constraints, we need to rethink the job description of "family cook." In the latest edition of the food magazine Lucky Peach, Michael Pollan argues that the reason processed foods took over the American home in the 20th century is that women began working outside the home and no longer had the time to cook. Men had the opportunity to help out, but before such a transition could take place, the food industry bombarded us with all manner of convenience foods, telling us that nobody needed to cook anymore. I can't vouch for Pollan's sources — they weren't cited in the interview. While I do think that men have taken a more active role in cooking since the 1950s, I will also be the first to agree that if our eating and cooking habits are to change, men will have to don the apron more often. One of the reasons my mother did all the cooking when I was growing up was because I come from a very traditional Southern family. None of the men in my (very large) family take on kitchen tasks — not even washing the dishes after the meal is over. When we visit my family and my husband does the dishes, you'd think he was a rare exotic bird by the way the women in my family carry on. Regardless of who does the cooking — and there's an argument to be made that children who are old enough can be put in charge of at least some family meals — we need to stop listening to the old "there isn't enough time" argument. My mother, after all, pulled together meal after meal in under 45 minutes — less time, in most places, than you need to get takeout. We have the time. We just tend to use it in other ways: working too much, overscheduling our evenings and weekends, watching TV. Which leaves little time for enjoying the rituals of food — and stresses us out. Stress has been linked to the development of obesity. Simply put, when we're stressed, we tend to eat more, and our body stores more of that food as fat. So we're stuck in a vicious cycle: no time to shop, no time to cook, no time to eat together, no time to exercise . . . But we can stop the cycle anytime we like. After all, if we can ship fresh tomatoes around the world and invent processed foods with a shelf life of decades, we can also decide to turn in the opposite direction. Take the time. Plan ahead. Make menus, find the food purveyors you want to support, and make dinner, cooking ahead on weekends or in the mornings if that's easier. And then enjoy it — together.