Are family meals still important?
That’s one of the questions I discussed on The Catholic Foodie Show on Wednesday.
In response, I attempted to demonstrate how the Sacramental Principle helps us to better understand the necessity of communal meals. If we look in scripture, we can see that God created us for communion… communion with himself and communion with each other. And communion so often happens around the table (the table of the Eucharist at church, and the family dinner table at home).
After the show, as I was putting together the show notes and linking to the articles that called for the abandonment of the ideal of the home-cooked family meal, I decided to search for any online rebuttals to those articles. I found plenty, including an excellent and balanced response from chef and food writer Michael Ruhlman.
Here is what Michael Ruhlman had to say about abandoning the ideal of the home-cooked family meal:
Alerted about an article on Slate that runs counter to my own convictions, I was inclined to regard it as misguided, inelegant and leave it at that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The home cooked dinner is “expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food,” the journalist Amanda Marcotte concludes, using a study by three NC State University sociologists as her springboard, a study that argues something even more ridiculous: “The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint.”
What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the author’s conviction that home-cooked meals shared by the family is a romantic notion, not to mention harmful to those who consider it a burden on any mother living in poverty.
I was disheartened to learn, after some additional mouse clicks, that the author was so upset by the response on Twitter that she avoids her mentions now. People were a bit strident, perhaps, but they were hardly anonymous trolls.
I certainly can’t fault her claims that single mothers at the poverty level (16% of America is impoverished, according to Wikipedia), or those who are holding down multiple jobs, are lucky just to get the kids fed in any way possible. True.
But to claim that for most American families, regular home-cooked meals are romanticized is wrong and harmful. (I won’t even get into the claim that it’s an “elite foodie” construct.)
There are, of course, too many studies to count finding benefits of eating together on a regular basis. What all the authors seem to be saying, though, is that whatever its benefits cooking for your family is so much of a burden that the burden cancels out the benefits. Well, yes, cooking takes some work. Taking out the trash and mowing the lawn and paying bills are burdens as well. Cooking is especially a burden if you simply don’t like to cook even if you know how. It’s a burden sometimes for me, and I love to cook. (The other claim, that it’s expensive, is nonsense, as Mark Bittman write about here. Grocery stores are packed with incredibly cheap raw food.)
Burden though it is, it’s worth encouraging and valuing, and home-cooked meals shared by the people you live with, shared by friends, is important enough that we ought to embrace this particular burden and share it to make it easier in our busy lives.
I’ve said it before: cooking arguably was the mechanism that made us the most successful species on the planet, most importantly in that it changed how we acted toward one another. Not cooking has contributed to, if not caused, a national health crisis now considered out of control.
It seems fairly clear that when we cook for ourselves and the people we care about, our bodies are healthier, our families are healthier, our communities are healthier, and the environment is healthier.
To claim that a home-cooked meal with family is romanticized, and therefore a harmful burden to those who make it, is itself wrong and harmful.
But Marcotte’s article did do one good thing: it made me think. It asked me to question whether or not the “Leave It to Beaver”-style family meal is, in fact, a romantic ideal.
I hope to God not, because if it is, then it’s all too easy to dismiss. Far more than a romantic ideal, family dinnertime can be a fundamental source of many different kinds of health and well-being, one worth the relatively small burden of buying food, cooking it and cleaning up after.