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Unburdening: Ditch the Ideal Meal

September 10, 2014

Did you read that study which found that home-cooking disproportionately burdens mothers?

On my social media feeds, it has been the PBS story on the study and not the study itself that have been making the rounds. Given that this is an issue that’s close to my heart, I felt compelled to read the full study.

Granted, I’m the outlier here. I’m the father, yet these days I do the overwhelming majority of the cooking, dishes, and grocery shopping. I can’t say that I’m surprised these household functions are disproportionately fulfilled by women. I’m not sure what I can do to compel men to take on a larger role in the kitchen.

What I can do is try to lessen the burden for whoever is doing the cooking for a family.

With a study that was based on interviews with 150 mothers and over 250 hours of observing 12 working class and poor families, these researchers revealed plenty of ways that cooking is seen to be a burden.

I see this as a string of solvable problems. I know, because all of these things are issues that I’ve struggled with myself, and at least in part have overcome. So let’s take them one at a time. Today, we should start with the biggest burden at the heart of the beast.

The Ideal Family Meal

Amazingly, we occasionally get invited over to people’s houses for dinner. For what it’s worth, I’m a great guest, and am grateful and appreciative for whatever any home cook has decided to share.

There are some home cooks who make it look easy to pull together a table filled with a main dish and a variety of homemade side dishes. And to many this is what is considered the ideal: a protein at the center of the plate, some starch, a hot vegetable, and perhaps a salad. At the minimum.

Think of the fast food equivalent of the ideal family meal. I’d argue it’s the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. Fried chicken is at the center of the plate, but it comes with a biscuit, baked beans, and coleslaw.

If cooking that much food from scratch is a burden, then don’t cook that much food.

The goal in cooking from scratch should be to reduce your dependence on processed convenience foods, and to eat better. It’s not supposed to be torture. And it doesn’t have to be elaborate.

There is nothing wrong with pasta dinner. We do it at least once per week. It’s just Trader Joe’s organic whole wheat spaghetti, a crown of broccoli, a couple cloves of garlic, a half cup of TJ’s Olive Oil, salt, pepper, chili flakes, and maybe an ounce or so of Parm-Reg. That’s it. Maybe if there is a leftover roasted chicken breast that will get sliced up too. The whole thing is cooked in one large pot and one small stainless steel measuring cup (that I can put on the stove).

Some may look at that meal and ask, “But where’s the protein?”

Well, the pound of pasta has 64g of protein. Parmesan has 2g per grated tablespoon. There are 10g in a one pound bag of frozen organic broccoli. Does it have as much as a steak? Nope. But is it a decent meal? Sure it is.

The other family favorite is brown rice with Cuban black beans. Sometimes these are just a side dish. But plenty of nights when I’m pressed for time, a heaping bowl full of the stuff will make a perfectly fine dinner. Maybe there will be some raw carrot sticks on the side and a piece of fruit for dessert.

This is actually Little Miss Fussy’s ideal family meal, but I can imagine people struggling with the idea of feeding their loved ones something so basic.

But it’s okay.

In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s great. It’s so much better to make something simple, filling, and healthful than to juggle more pots and pans than you can comfortably manage in an attempt to duplicate a meal you saw made with ease on TV or in a magazine.

Yes, they may tempt you with their 30 minute meals. But they lie. More on that later. For now, maybe you just start by cutting yourself some slack. Cooking big meals takes time. And it’s time that we don’t always have. That doesn’t mean you have to give up any hope of having a home cooked dinner.

Sometimes less is more.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. boya3706 permalink
    September 10, 2014 10:32 am

    I was going to say exactly the same thing, besides the fact that I don’t cook 2 sides with any meal we have I pick one well balanced meal option and that’s what is for dinner. Last night we had a “salad” of white beans, nectarines, bulgar wheat, basil and some spices. We ate around 7:45 pm. That is something we catch a lot of flak for, from other people that we eat dinner so late. The expectation that dinner time happens at 5-6 pm, something not covered in this study in the portion I read, I think it creates that time pressure. When did it become common courtesy or practice that dinner is at a specific time instead of when it’s ready?

  2. September 10, 2014 11:10 am

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you.
    I find that when I’m cooking for myself, I have no problem making a bowl of whatever I can fling together from the fridge and the freezer. Bits of veggies, an egg, etc. But the second my boyfriend is staying for dinner, or my sister is in town for lunch etc. I feel the need to create the “perfect plate” that meets all the standard expectations of meat/veg/starch.
    I need to remember that every meal can be delicious without having to be a Martha Stewart worthy presentation.

  3. September 10, 2014 2:25 pm

    I love this, thank you so much for writing on this topic! I’m just proud of myself if I get dinner on the table at all, frankly. I’m terrible at the whole “advanced planning” thing. Pantry staples are staples for a reason – I know I can whip up a quick soup and cornbread in 30 minutes, and if that’s all there is for dinner, that’s all there is for dinner. Beef and broccoli is my go-to quick meal. I put the rice in the oven as soon as I walk in the door, and by the time I deal with the kids, feed the pets, etc., then actually make the beef and broccoli, the rice is done, and there is a hot meal on the table (or living room floor sometimes, let’s be honest) that the people in my house can usually get behind.

    When it comes to having to “impress,” I think hitting mastery level on a few dishes and having people see you throw together a quick, tasty meal with (what seems like) little effort is far more impressive than having lots of time to plan, prep, shop, and cook. Almost anyone can do that. It’s the whole “grace under fire” concept that really wows people.

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