Check Your Healthy Home-Cooked Meal Privilege

CC BY 2.0. fotologic

For many low-income U.S. families who don't have access to fresh ingredients, kitchen utensils, money, or the luxury of time, getting supper on the table is a real challenge.

Getting dinner on the table is hard work. If you’ve ever cooked for a hungry family, you’ll know the many pressures that come with balancing cost, juggling schedules, and meeting culinary expectations. Despite being such an unglamorous task, it is widely considered to be the potential savior of North America’s atrocious food situation.

A return to the kitchen, as preached by well-known food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, as well countless other locavore fans and food-lovers (including myself here on TreeHugger), is supposed to solve all our problems, from health-related issues like obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes, to combating the evils of Big Ag, GMOs, and factory farms.

But maybe it’s not that simple. Like those boxed cake mixes that tell you to “just add water,” perhaps there’s more to solving our predicament than ordering people to “just go back to the kitchen.”

At least, that’s what one team of sociologists from North Carolina State University would argue in their new study titled "The Joy of Cooking?" The three researchers—Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot, and Joslyn Brenton, all of whose current work focuses on food access among low-income families—recently completed an 18-month study on the state of home cooking in the United States. They followed nearly 200 mothers from low- and middle-income families, conducting extensive interviews, carrying out intensive ethnographic observations, and visiting them multiple times while observing daily activities, such as grocery shopping, making dinner, and visiting the doctor’s office.

Their conclusions about home cooking, as explained in an interview with Sarah Kliff at Vox, were surprising.

“The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint. Romantic depictions of cooking assume that everyone has a home, the family members are home eating at the same time, and that kitchens and dining spaces are equipped and safe. This is not necessarily the case for the families we met.”

Although the low-income families were actually cooking quite a bit—almost nightly, since they couldn't afford to eat out or didn't have a car to go elsewhere—the researchers found that they faced numerous obstacles to getting food on the table and eating healthy home-cooked meals on a regular basis.

There are time constraints. Many parents, often single moms, get home too late to prepare the kinds of meals they’d like to serve to their families. The lower a family’s income, the less stability there generally is in a mother’s schedule.

Money is a big issue. Healthy ingredients tend to be more expensive than processed, prepackaged food products. Many low-income families don’t have cars, which means they shop for groceries only once a month and have limited access to perishable fresh ingredients.

Many families lack equipment. Sarah Bowen told Vox, “Some of the families didn’t have a kitchen table, or enough chairs for everyone, or lacked basic kitchen utensils.”

Kids are picky. Some families really cannot afford to waste any food, so it’s easier just to cook what will please everyone, even if it’s not overly healthy.

“When we hear about how we all need home-cooked meals, there are a lot of assumptions of what that looks like.”

As someone who still believes in the power of home cooking to transform our broken food system, it’s upsetting to read the results of such a study; but it also underlines the desperate need for widespread change more than ever.

What if we took some of the pressure off low-income parents to feed their kids properly and instituted gardening, cooking, and meal programs in all schools across the country? That would teach kids to appreciate fresh ingredients and flavours, reducing pickiness and preference for oily, salty, sugary fast food, and give them the skills to cook healthy, fast dinners for their families. What if all low-income families on financial assistance received slow-cookers as part of their support payments? What if we built industrial community kitchens where people could go to cook freezer meals once a week? What if grocery stores or CSA programs expanded to include affordable delivery options?

The problem lies not with home cooking itself, but with a system that doesn’t support it sufficiently. I still believe that home cooking is the best long-term solution for establishing good health and good familial relationships and better food sources, but this study is an important reminder that it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.