The problem with the home-cooked, family dinner ideal

The expectations and guilt surrounding what parents feed their kids have never been higher. Why food divides one family instead of bringing it together.

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“I’m just giving her anything she wants to eat and we’re not going to fight it.”

My husband issues this fait accompli while reaching into the maw of the fridge for the leftover mac and cheese. He already sounds defeated by our inevitable dinnertime showdown with our preschooler, and it hasn’t even begun.

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It’s been a long, stressful day and there’s an unspoken understanding that tonight we will pick our battles. And that means doling out boxed noodles for the third time this week. I know my four year old won’t touch the healthy, homemade dinner I’ve made for the rest of the family. I won’t even try.

Maclean’s Canada Project survey, in partnership with Abacus Data, revealed that 62% of Canadians eat dinner as a family at least five times a week; the majority of the meals are made by women. Feeding my family is, hands down, the parenting task I loathe the most. No matter how much forethought I put into to each person’s individual preferences, the meal I make will offend someone. If it’s vegetarian, my husband will ask where the “rest of it” is. My toddler would rather grind carbs into her hair than eat them. And then there’s my preschooler.

She’s spirited and assertive, bold and outspoken. She’s also a picky eater. And her take-no-prisoners attitude, coupled with her disdain for anything other than Veggie Straws and frozen waffles, makes feeding her a nightmare.

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All four of us dread the dinner table. The adults dread it because no matter what we prepare, we will be met with a meltdown. Our four year old dreads it because the food we serve is usually a) revolting, b) poisoned, or c) too salty/spicy/crunchy/sweet/sharp (yes, sharp). Our younger toddler dreads it, I’m guessing, because of the shouting.

I’ve tried it all: reasoning, threatening, cajoling and rewarding. Involving her in meal prep, grocery shopping and garden harvesting.

I’ve even tried to make her food look adorable. Two weeks ago I made her a snack worthy of Pinterest: a snail made from celery, nut butter, pretzels and raisins. All food she enjoys. And she was thrilled when I presented the plate to her. But 20 minutes later, she brought the snack back to me, uneaten. “I don’t like these things,” she informed me. “I’m hungry for something else.”

When every single meal is a fight—no matter what you serve—it starts to fill you with anxiety. I’ve taken to drinking a glass of wine as I cook just to take the edge off. This isn’t hyperbole. This is my life. Three times a day. Every day. (The wine is only in the evenings, in case you were raising an eyebrow.)

So we cave. We make her make boxed and frozen dinners that are becoming increasingly beige. We cater to the random dietary whims of the preschooler because conceding is just so much easier than fighting.

I hate that food has become something that divides our family, rather than something we can enjoy together. I hate that I came at this with the best of intentions, and that I’m being beaten down. And I hate how this fills me with profound guilt.

My Facebook feed is inundated with stories of how we are failing our children by facilitating diets filled with salt, sugar, empty carbs and preservatives. Hydrogenated oil, yellow dye Number 5 and corn syrup are killing our children. She’ll get ADHD. She’ll get cavities. She’ll get scurvy.

The lunches we send to school are being increasingly scrutinized, and notes are sent home with lists of prohibited and required food items.

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I know I’m not the only mother who feels pressured to create a Rockwellian scene in the dining room every evening, and yet perpetually fails at achieving this ideal.

I also know that I have it lucky: I have well-stocked grocery stores nearby, the resources to shop at them, the time to prepare home-cooked meals and a kitchen with supplies necessary to do so.

But for parents who work two jobs, or don’t have spouses with whom to share responsibilities, or whose budgets make it difficult to buy the healthy foods my daughter refuses to eat, the barriers to providing nutritious home-cooked meals may seem insurmountable.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. A 2014 study called The Joy of Cooking?, conducted by three sociologists from North Carolina State University, found that the burden of trying to provide healthy home-cooked meals falls disproportionately on mothers, who often feel like it’s not even worth their effort (which I so get).

The researchers interviewed 150 mothers from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and spent 250 hours observing 12 families, and found there’s a societal perception that home-cooked meals are a hallmark of good mothering. And yet poverty, poor access to grocery stores and a lack of time to shop and cook all make it nearly impossible for many women to live up to these ideals.

Women in the study complain of spending what little time they have after work preparing meals that are met with complaints or disinterest from children and spouses. Then there’s the invisible labour that goes into planning, shopping and co-ordinating family meals, which also tends to fall on mothers, making the task of cooking even more daunting. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the authors observed.

“The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal,” they went on. “Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.”

And it is a burden. In my family, and in so many others.

Would it be so bad to go back to the frozen meals of my 1980s childhood? Fruit roll-ups and wagon wheels at recess? Would my kids still blossom to their full potential? Would anyone even notice? Until I am able to find that elusive perfect balance: a healthy meal that all four of us are willing to gobble up, mealtime in my family will continue to involve wine (for the grownups), tears (from the kids), and endless negotiating.

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