Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday April 21, 2019.
We had to add a few seats around the table for dinner last night. The kitchen was a bustling place, as it is when we have family and friends over. There were stories and laughter and dinner became tea time which went on for a while longer.
I am one of those people who believes that having people gathered together for a meal is a magical thing. Even with the simplest, rushed meal at times, because life is like that sometimes, the four of us sit down and share that time and the food.
Utter joy is not always an implied course (not at the beginning of the meal anyway,) but by the time we put our dishes away smiles are present and the air is lighter. Other times we choke with laughter. Or we talk about this and that. Kids squabbles – they happen too. Add that to the learning curve of life’s skills if you will: how to navigate the occasionally choppy waters of sibling love.
As for the meals, we have no rule in place, but we aim for simple and healthy as much as possible. Sometimes it’s pizza with sliced veggies and fruit for desert. Be it so, it matters that we share it. Since they were little the boys would ask ‘What’s for dinner?’ and my one-word answer has always puzzled and amused them: Food!
Given all of this, I shook my head and was quite annoyed to be reading about a study by three sociologists who conducted interviews with 150 American families and concluded that the home cooked meals and family meals in general, are overrated and in fact a source of stress and contention. To have home cooked meals, the authors wrote, creates a lot of stress.
The examples in the study go from low-income families where the amenities were often missing, much like the choice in buying cooking ingredients, to middle-class and six-figure families where lack of time, the frustration of the cooking process and the refusal of some family members to eat the result of the said cooking storm created frustration and stress.
While research is essential to learning, and 150 families can certainly provide some data, there are at least 150 families and many more, ranging from low-income to high who will tell you how they make things happen in the kitchen because they believe in the value of home cooked meals (even when that means something extremely simple) and their children learning about it as a valuable skill to have.
In many families, cooking and food shopping responsibilities are shared – as they should be, and so is the cleaning afterwards. It’s a nagging-infused process perhaps, teaching kids that meals are a family affair not only when it comes to eating but throughout the whole process – from getting the ingredients to cooking and cleaning, but highly worth it.
While it is good for kids to learn all sorts of things (though often that becomes a burden in itself for the child whose schedule is overloaded with everything from sports to music and everything in between,) learning to feed oneself and later on provide and cook for a family, that is an important skill which many of us learned alongside our parents.
I have fond memories of botching some dishes as a kid, and I have fond memories of my boys doing the same as they learn to cook. I have way more memories of sitting down for meals with my family, as a kid, and now as an adult, and tasting the goodness of togetherness. As for comfort foods, or dishes that you are ruined for because no one cooks them like you had them in your home growing up, well, that could happen too.
Scattering families from around the family meals does a disservice to people. Throughout time, people have gathered around to share meals. People from any ethic background can attest to the bond they have with the food they grew up with, which does not stop them from eating other kinds, but it adds an element of comfort of a special kind.
As for poverty, sadly and shamefully so, it is a sad reality for many people nowadays but pointing the finger at the home cooked food and family meals might not be the way to solve it. The rottenness of poverty is a complex issue that manifests itself in many awful ways, and lack of proper food (including fresh produce) is one of them. The study authors suggested a return of monthly town suppers as a solution, or sharing meals in schools and workplaces, or schools offering to-go meals that students could take home.
I dare argue that these suggestions make me think of band-aid solutions, which generally have a bad reputation. Addressing poverty with hand-out meals is hardly a way to make people feel good about themselves or ensure their dignity stays intact. Providing ways for low-income people to provide food for their families and feel empowered while doing so, while also having enough resources in place to help them leave poverty behind, that is where it’s at.
I do agree with the study authors on one point: celebrity chefs can increase the pressure when it comes to home cooking and that is troublesome (that’s likely one extra good thing about not having cable television.) But, to give credit where it’s due, there are enough chefs out there who provide solutions for simple meals and the ways to make it happen in a frugal way, or speedy way if that’s how life has it.