A new study published by researchers at North Carolina State University tackles the challenge of shopping for, preparing and sharing healthful family meals. In “The Joy of Cooking?,” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton describe women in particular as struggling to enact cultural ideals associated with home-cooked meals. Expensive ingredients, time pressures and picky eaters seem to conspire against them, with poor, working-class and middle-class mothers all feeling the pinch.
The study’s findings were hotly debated in recent weeks, with coverage and commentary in outlets such as Slate, PBS and The New York Times focusing almost exclusively on values and priorities. Some praised the study for questioning the idealization of burdensome family dinners. Others called for increased commitment to home-cooked family meals, citing the rewards of time spent together and noting how easy and rewarding meal preparation can be.
Because the debate’s participants have primarily viewed the issues through lenses of family and food rather than work, very little of the debate has broached the root causes of families’ mealtime struggles: deteriorating employment opportunities, stagnant wages, and changing expectations of workers.
For decades, as men’s economic opportunities have deteriorated, women (especially married women) have worked more hours outside the home to keep their families afloat. Despite steady increases in women’s paid employment, real median household income (adjusted for inflation and family size) is roughly unchanged compared to twenty-five years ago. Gains in the late 1990s were offset by losses in prior years and after 2000. Even during the economic “recovery,” incomes of middle- and lower-class households have continued to fall while post-recession gains have been concentrated at the top of the income distribution.
Increased demands on time and energy of adult household members, especially in the absence of income growth, mean that there are fewer resources available for household labor. This includes meal preparation, which – notwithstanding the oft-cited emotional benefits associated with preparing and sharing meals – is actually work, just as Bowen and her colleagues claim.
Of course, rising female employment and stagnant household incomes are only part of the story. Changes in family life also reflect shifting conditions of employment across the occupational spectrum. Intense competition for profits has changed what firms demand from their employees. Salaried workers are stretched to capacity by employers seeking to maximize returns on wages paid, while workers paid on an hourly basis often receive fewer hours than they desire, owing to employers’ penchant for cutting labor costs and transferring onto employees the burden of fluctuating consumer demand. Many employers limit use of full-time employees, and opt instead to hire large numbers of part-time workers to deploy as needed. Many part-timers consequently must hold multiple jobs to make ends meet – a very difficult balancing act owing to variability in work hours, last-minute posting of schedules, and increasing assignment of on-call shifts.
As workers must increasingly avail employers of their time, they are less available for household labor, which brings us back to food. For decades, working parents have turned to pre-cut, pre-packaged, often pre-cooked foods to make mealtimes more manageable. Reliance on convenience foods, such as pre-packaged lunch options for children, has taken the place of more labor-intensive meals. Their potent combination of salt, sugar and fat, however, runs counter to cultural values emphasizing healthful, homemade meals and puts parents (especially mothers) in the position of competing with an industry intensely focused on flavor for family members’ tastes.
Potential for change lies not in promotion of cultural values to which most of us already subscribe (as the debate over values and priorities would suggest), but in candid discussion of the underlying causes and pressure for change in the worlds of work and consumption.
Revising laws pertaining to overtime would help salaried workers find more time to shop, prepare food and enjoy mealtimes with their families. Legislation promoting more predictable shifts, fewer on-call hours and more full-time employment would help many hourly workers do the same. Workers could better afford healthy foods if minimum wage laws were adjusted to reflect increases in the cost of living and if low-wage, service-sector workers were compensated for time spent on-call.
Busy workers can also make changes in their consumption patterns. Some grocery stores have already incorporated pickup and delivery services that help individuals cope with job-related time-pressures. Individuals could press grocers not yet providing these services to do so, share shopping and meal preparation tasks with others, and increase support of community supported agriculture programs featuring delivery of local, in-season fruits and vegetables. Consumers can also press providers of ready-made food for more healthful options – a strategy that has led to changes in the fast food industry (increasing fruit and vegetable offerings and limiting use of trans fats) – and patronize the growing number of independent and chain restaurants with business models emphasizing low-cost, healthful food.
Whatever strategies are chosen, making real change requires that we balance the debate over values with full consideration of the economic forces at play, including rising economic inequality and increasing job pressures. As long as we continue to debate priorities rather than policy, the conditions underlying families’ mealtime struggles will continue to prevail.