I’m mere weeks away from my first trip home in nearly a year, and the food-related daydreams have already begun. We’ll have four days at home—four precious days of indulging in our favorite snacks and meals, a combination of those that we can’t get on the island where we live (Dunkin’ Donuts) and those that have been designated “cold weather foods,” reserved only for chilly days of autumn and winter. (It’s hard to work up the enthusiasm for, say, a piping hot shepherd’s pie when it’s eighty-plus degrees outside.) Even more than that, I’m looking forward to all the traditions and rituals that are intertwined with these meals: “donut day” at my aunt’s, Thanksgiving at dad’s, a big Sunday dinner while we decorate the Christmas tree at my mom’s house.
Which is why I found this recent New York Times piece so interesting. In “What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?,” Virginia Heffernan despairs over the complications inherent in “figuring out” daily meals for her family, balancing everyone’s nutritional needs with the preferences of the picky eaters, all while trying to shield her family from the “terror of the Toxins,” “lest they be poisoned by phthalates, dextrose, and heavy metals.” She recounts the discouragement she feels reading the high standards set by what she has dubbed “the mother cookbooks”:
In the introduction to 100 Days of Real Food, Lisa Leake calls my hasty, anxious, food-delivery way of figuring out dinner “fall[ing] prey to” the lure of convenience. That is indeed what I feel like at dinnertime: prey. Instead of hunting down healthful, real, inconvenient food, dinner-shirkers like myself are menaced, in Leake’s dark vision, by such predators as restaurants, takeout, “cans of cream of mushroom soup” and what she calls “even the occasional frozen dinner.”
Heffernan isn’t the only one lamenting the difficulties of living up to expectations for home cooked meals. In a recent paper titled “The Joy of Cooking?,” sociologists reported their findings from studying how mothers feed their families, citing the difficulties these moms encountered in preparing meals while facing restrictions on time, transportation, and—most of all—finances. News outlets reporting on the study, with accusatory titles such as “The Problem with Home-Cooked Meals” and “The Tyranny of the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” focused on the “idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint.” But these overdramatic headlines seemed inconsistent with the findings of “The Joy of Cooking?,” as the authors themselves noted that “[p]eople were cooking a lot…. At the same time, they felt they weren’t cooking well enough.”
Where have we gotten the idea that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to do a home-cooked dinner? And that falling short of the idyllic family meal that we might’ve romanticized in our head means that we should just… not bother trying? I’ve written before about special meals we share with our families, my personal favorite being my Nana’s spaghetti and meatballs. But for me, these special meals, cooked over the length of a weekend afternoon, requiring near-constant attention and stirring, are the exception, not the norm. The day to day grind of sorting out three meals a day, amidst busy schedules and other obligations, is another thing entirely.
So where does the pressure to cook extensive, healthy, home-cooked meals seven nights a week come from? It’s found not only in the “mother cookbooks,” but from social media. On any given day, a quick scroll through Instagram might show you an elaborate, healthy dinner that a friend concocted, carefully presented on a classy, color-coordinated plate, and usually accompanied by a fancy wine glass. (Not pictured: the sandwiches she ate off paper plates the other six nights that week.) When you’re only privy to the best highlights of someone else’s culinary escapades, it’s easy to worry that your reheated leftovers and mismatched serving ware aren’t quite cutting it. Pinterest boards can be equally aspirational. I can’t be the only one who has boards filled with inspiration for ornate seasonal table settings and recipes for specialty cocktails (complete with decorative ice cubes featuring frozen herbs) that I am definitely never going to create. The dizzying array of nutritional warnings doesn’t help matters. Sugar is going to kill us all, but artificial sweetener will give you cancer. Low-fat is a scam, but trans fats are worse. Don’t eat meat, but only buy locally grown fruits and veggies. Organic! Vegan! Paleo! The options are endless and, at times, exhausting. It’s enough to overwhelm even the most dedicated cook.
I know this because I am married to a very dedicated cook. Nick adores grocery shopping—not the breakneck sprint through the aisles that I like to do, detailed list in hand, but a multi-hour stroll through specialty stores, preferably with a stop at a farmer’s market, crafting a delicious meal with whatever items are looking particularly fresh and enticing that day. But even his enthusiasm for cooking isn’t enough to inspire us to cook at home seven nights a week, let alone to create seven healthy, organic, Instagram-worthy meals. (And we don’t even have kids to worry about yet! I’m sure the pressure will only increase once we have little ones to feed—many of my friends with new babies have echoed Meg’s struggle with guilt over not making their own baby food from scratch.) Getting an elaborate home cooked meal prepared on a nightly basis, even just for the two of us, is just too much, and that’s okay—we make do with pasta, or a sandwich, or even (gasp!) frozen meals. When time permits, these simple meals are occasionally punctuated by fancier, more labor-intensive dinners, and those are lovely, too—but frankly, we bond just as easily over Bagel Bites.
And what if you don’t have a partner who is interested in spending time in the kitchen? The Slate article subtitled “The Tyranny of the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” placed much of the blame on “picky husbands and boyfriends” and “fussy children.” The author argued that cooking is “expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway.” But if you find yourself cooking for someone picky, fussy, and ungrateful, the ire is better directed at that person, rather than at the whole idea of home cooking in general—it’s the non-appreciative person, and not the meal itself, that could more properly be dubbed “tyrannical.”
But what if you, and your partner, really do “just hate making dinner?” Well, dinner needs to happen, one way or another—maybe we’re setting the bar a bit too high by trying to serve a meal worthy of Pinterest, or by asking our dinner to come with a side of “joy.” Even “The Joy of Cooking?” researchers said, “We’re not against family meals and we’re definitely not against dinner.” Maybe the secret is that the joy doesn’t come from the meal itself—even if it came from a can, fresh from the microwave, served with plastic utensils—but from the distraction-free hour or so that you spend with the people you love a couple times a week. As for me, I’m already scheming how to sneak a few of my favorite frozen pizzas on the plane home from Thanksgiving. If I can manage to get them back to my island without defrosting them, Nick and I will have several lovely, special, meals straight from the freezer to look forward to—and you can bet it’ll be making an appearance on my Instagram, paper plates and all.