Study Says Home-Cooked Meals Burden Working Mothers. What Can We Do About It?

3 years ago

If you were a child in the 1970s, you’ll remember the lyrics to the Enjoli perfume commercial: "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan." But in reality, it’s hard enough to work to earn a living and put healthy meals on the table, even without the smelling good and looking sexy. And according to a new study from North Carolina State University researchers, even in 2014, the burden of home cooking still falls mostly on women.

Image: alonis via Flickr

Recently, I was talking with my husband about how stressed I am about finding the time to cook. As a work-at-home mom, I’ve usually had the benefit of being able to put ingredients in a slow cooker in the afternoon, or at least chop some vegetables and start the rice cooker between my professional workday and the second shift of ferrying kids to swim practices and music lessons. We’ve recently moved to temporary living quarters with a half-hour commute to our schools, offices and activities, meaning that, like many families with two working parents, we all arrive home hungry and tired right at the time when our stomachs expect dinner on the table. In the midst of all our transitions, the question of finding time for meal prep had hardly fazed him. For years, I've been the chief cook. I enjoy preparing dinners and sharing food traditions with our kids. I let my husband be the chief bottle washer.

Our family is hardly alone. According to another study, titled “The Joy of Cooking?” published by the American Sociological Association, the burden of cooking meals from scratch falls disproportionately on women. The report cites sociologist Sharon Hays:

To be a good mom today, a woman must demonstrate intense devotion to her children. One could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen."

My mother and my mother-in-law do not understand my slight obsession with cooking. To many women of their generation, convenience foods and the lifting of social expectations that women spend all day in the kitchen were some of the major achievements of the late twentieth century. While it may be easy to be blame the prioritization of the home-cooked family dinner as retrograde or setting back women’s freedoms, the fact remains that preparing food in one’s own kitchen is a key way to stay healthy and rein in the spending. Just look at Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, which encourages eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and provides recipes for nutritious meals, as part of the initiative to improve kids’ health nationwide.

And while the providing healthy meals is a challenge for middle class mothers, the stakes are even higher for low-income families. The researchers from North Carolina State University studied 150 black, white and Latina mothers for a year and a half. Here are some of the most interesting findings:

Middle-Class and Low-Income Mothers and Home Cooking
  • Many of the middle-class mothers we met also told us that money was a barrier to preparing healthy meals. Even though they often had household incomes of more than $100,000 a year… they were forced to make tradeoffs in order to save money— like buying less healthful processed food, or fewer organic items than they would like.
  • For low-income mothers, the tradeoffs are starker: They skipped meals, or spent long hours in line at food pantries or applying for assistance, to make sure their children had enough to eat.
  • The mothers we met who were barely paying the bills routinely cooked —contrary to the stereotype that poor families mainly eat fast food—because it was more economical. (One of the families studied included two parents who both worked at fast-food restaurants, and a grandmother who who cared for the children while also holding down a food service job.)
  • It costs $1.50 more per day—or about $550 a year per person—to eat a healthier diet than a less healthy diet.
  • Sounds bleak, right?

    What I really like about this study is that it urges us to take the conversation about healthy eating out of our individual kitchens and into the public sphere. Instead of the dialogue being framed as a men vs. women or working moms vs. stay at home moms, the researchers suggest brainstorming more creative solutions—and societal— solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. Here are some of their suggestions:

    Creative Solutions for Sharing the Work of Feeding Families
  • How about a revival of monthly town suppers or healthy food trucks?
  • 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?
  • Maybe I’m putting myself in a cage, but I really appreciate the feeling and tradition of a home-cooked meal and aim to put one on the table the majority of the time. But I could use a few easier options that are more healthy than Panda Express and less expensive than hitting the takeout bar at Whole Foods.

    What about you? Are there any grass-roots or policy changes that could help your family eat nutritious meals without spending all your time or money?

    News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

    This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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