Growing up, my family rarely sat down together for dinner in the evening. As one of three picky eaters to a single mom, mealtimes were, at best, hectic. Food was never served at a set time due to the fact that we lived on a busy farm and certain times of year (like spring and fall) meant that meals were cobbled together as best we could manage on a limited budget. And with us kids often turning our noses up at what was on our plates, the meals we ate together were noisy and filled with complaints. By the time I was in high school, family meals were a distant memory, with extracurricular activities and part-time jobs taking the place of connecting with each other.
But at least we tried.
Fast forward 30 years and now I'm facing my own dinnertime challenges with my children. I'd hazard a guess that you're facing your own food battles, too.
Family dinners have been a hot topic in the news this week, thanks to research by three North Carolina State University sociologists that suggests modern family dinners are doomed. Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton took aim at the common myth that family dinners help strengthen the relationships between family members, claiming instead that the costs of meals and the stresses involved in food prep dampen the overall mood. Their findings were published in the Summer 2014 issue of the American Sociological Association's magazine Contexts.
"The message that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of 'good' mothering. One could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen," they write in Contexts.
Their research included in-depth interviews with 150 mothers and more than 250 hours of observing the meal prep and planning stages of family dinners. What they witnessed was what most of us experience on a nightly basis—complaints, mess and stress.
"We never observed a meal in which at least one family member—and often more—didn’t complain about something that they were served,” Elliott says.
Read more: Easy dinner recipes for lunch leftovers>
On the New York Times's Motherlode, KJ Dell'Atonia rejects the notion that cooking is the problem when it comes to bringing family together at mealtime. "Many of the burdens the sociologists noted, based on interviews, observation and fieldwork, had little to do with cooking at all. If we would like to physically come together with our family and friends at the end of the day, there’s no end to the things that get in our way. Cooking, ambitious or not, is not what stands between parents and a pleasant evening at home," she writes.
Dell'Atonia goes on the list a number of ways families can shift priorities to make dining together easier, including rescheduling work assignments, after-school activities and homework.
I'm inclined to agree with Dell'Atonia. Maybe because my childhood family meals were few and far between (reserved for birthdays and holidays) that picture-perfect family dinner is something I work hard toward every single day. We have no planned extracurricular activities because I'd much rather feed my kids at a table than out of containers in the back of our station wagon. I also know that, as a stay-at-home mom, I'm privileged to be able to invest extra time in grocery shopping and meal prep—it's one of the biggest reasons I quit my job.
It's not often I nail the perfect meal that the kids gobble up without complaint, and I constantly stress over the price of groceries and how messy my kitchen looks. But, in my opinion, the mess and stress of a family dinner is worth it.
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