Are Family Dinners Anti-Feminist?

little miss sunshineWhat could be more wholesome than a family gathered together to eat a home-cooked dinner around a kitchen table? Thanksgiving in miniature reenacted on a daily basis! Helping us soothe not merely our bellies and but our souls, and bond, parents and children alike, as we carve time from our hectic, digitally-connected-yet-solitary lives to reconnect with one another, to speak face to face and share the same simple pleasures, eating and drinking in tandem. Who could have an argument with family dinner? Amanda Marcotte at Slate, of course. Motto: If it weren’t contrarian, it wouldn’t be Slate.

The mothers they interviewed had largely internalized the social message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen,” but found that as much as they wanted to achieve that ideal, they didn’t have the time or money to get there. Low-income mothers often have erratic work schedules, making it impossible to have set meal times. Even for middle-class working mothers who are able to be home by 6 p.m., trying to cook a meal while children are demanding attention and other chores need doing becomes overwhelming.

Money is also a problem. Low-income women often don’t have the money for fresh produce and, in many cases, can’t afford to pay for even a basic kitchen setup. One low-income mother interviewed “was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds,” and was left to prepare “all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.” Even when people have their own homes, lack of money means their kitchens are small, pests are hard to keep at bay, and they can’t afford “basic kitchen tools like sharp knives, cutting boards, pots and pans.”

OK, so, this is indisputably true. My own (type A, perfectionist) upper-middle-class mom made herself crazy working full-time and then rushing home to prepare and serve dinner every night, including a fancy meal with guests on Fridays. It was one of many ways to she sacrificed her sanity on the altar of The Family, and one of the many reasons I was like, hell no am I gonna be a mom. Maybe a dad, since my dad mostly got to read the paper while chaos whirled around him. But a mom? HA.

The trouble is, and the reason my mom kept doing family dinners every night until we had all graduated from high school, is that they were beneficial. They pulled us together. If not for family dinner, my brothers and I would have scattered to the winds as soon as we got home from school, emerging only to forage in the pantry or the freezer. My mom made healthy food. My mom turned off the television. My mom asked us questions about our day.

My mom never asked for help, though she did get bitter when we didn’t volunteer to help with basic clean-up tasks or with feeding our high-maintenance dog. Maybe we were following my dad’s example or maybe, like kids everywhere, we were getting away with whatever we were allowed to get away with. Regardless, we acted like annoying, entitled snots, and she was right to be irked.

Marcotte, too, is right that the idealized home-cooked family dinner, as it stands now, is a burden that falls disproportionately on women, adding unfair stress and expectations without providing much in return. The solution isn’t to toss out family dinner baby-with-bathwater-style, though.

Here’s how family dinner and feminism can co-exist:

+ Everybody plans. Pick recipes together. Choose a variety of ingredients, frozen foods, and prepared foods, so that everyone’s expectations remain reasonable. Meals don’t have to be cooked 100% from scratch to be good and still cheaper/better for you than take out. That said, even eating take out together is better than the alternative, which I imagine as a small-scale, domestic version of The Road.

+ Everybody shops. Supermarkets are not Red Tents. Men navigate them too and kids can (learn to) love them. For the agoraphobic, there’s Peapod / Fresh Direct / whatever delivery service suits you.

+ Everybody cooks. Even kids can get in on the action. I wish someone had told me how to do simple things in the kitchen early on. Instead it was only when I read Kavalier and Clay that I learned how to scramble eggs, and I didn’t really start cooking for myself until I was 19.

Everybody cleans. Cleaning’s the worst! Once I shared an apartment with friends who loved cooking. They made elaborate dinners even on school nights and then expected that I would, naturally, do the washing up. I’ve never been so sulky and resentful, not even with my own mother. (Well, of course not; she didn’t make me do chores.) But there are secrets to making cleaning more bearable.

1) If you’re too tired, leave dishes to soak til morning. Really. It’s fine.

2) Aim for “good enough” in all things. You don’t have to satisfy the Health Inspector, or even your own mother’s voice in your head, just you and your little family.

3) Nobody gets dessert til dinner is put away. But then everybody gets dessert!

4) Some people like pot

5) Podcasts / audiobooks / comedies on DVD in the background

+ Everybody appreciates. No whining about the food. Limited negativity, period. Everybody’s in this together, everybody benefits, and that means everybody says “thank you” and means it. If anyone needs reminding of the alternative, send them to a corner with Cormac McCarthy. They’ll come back ashen-faced soon enough saying “I’ll be good.”

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31 Comments / Post A Comment

gyip (#4,192)

I feel like a big part of the draining task of cooking isn’t just the labour, but the CREATIVITY. Of course, you don’t have to have amazing ideas all the time, but switching up meals is really important to keep food pleasurable as well as nourishing. Plus, if you’re using a new technique or ingredient, it can be harrowing, feeling like you’ve forced a little risk on everyone. (I mean, in the end … order pizza?)

Good on calling out the planning part. That part can be so rewarding but so hard.

ATF (#4,229)

We often ate together as a family and my mom did the cooking as she was a stay at home mother. But my siblings and I were in charge of cleaning up after dinner every night. And not just in the clear your plate sense. We were in charge of clearing the table, emptying out pots/pans and storing the leftovers, wiping down the kitchen table, the counters and the stove, loading the dishwasher, scrubbing all the pots and pans (sans the occasional one that really did need to soak overnight), and sweeping the floor.

Early on there were bitter, bitter fights over who got to do what but by the end of things, we had a good pattern going. My sister tackled leftovers and counters, my brother cleared and swept, I did the dishes/loaded the dishwasher.

I intend to the same with my kids someday. My husband and I will be in charge of cooking and they’ll be in charge of cleaning. And then eventually they can help cook as well. All parts of it are just good life skills to have.

nell (#4,295)

@ATF Oh man my siblings and I had *brutal* fights over post-dinner clean-up. By the time I was 11 or 12 I took over cooking one or two nights a week so I would get out of clean-up, because there’s no chore I hate more than washing dishes. (Now I have a husband who doesn’t really cook but is an excellent dishwasher–I make dinner every night and have basically not washed a pot since 2009)

clo (#4,196)

@nell this is my system with my wife as well, with me being the dishwasher. everyone is happy with this. on the rare occassion i make dinner, she washes up. win/win.

OllyOlly (#669)

I grew up in a family-dinner household, although starting in late middle school I was the one who made dinner almost every night. My mom usually got home from work at 9:00pm. She was a workaholic and not really around for my teen years. And although my dad was home much earlier and would make dinner without complaint – I was always hungry and would just start making it for everyone myself. House rule was, if you cooked you didn’t clean.

Now my boyfriend and I plan and shop together. And then he usually makes dinner every night, because he enjoys it, and because he gets home earlier. I always clean up though!

I wonder if our generation will vary a lot in this family dinner dynamic / moms-must-do-all.

HannahDevra (#7,686)

long time lurker made commenter to toss in my own family-dinner story.

My dad started working from home when I was in middle school and became the de facto dinner maker, food shopper, etc and my mom got to come home, put her feet up, and have a drink. I know a lot of dads, and parents generally, don’t have the job flexibility to work from home, but the amount of “at home” hours my dad put in has made a huge difference in how I think about sharing responsibilities and gender. Also, he got me really into cooking and reconciled me to the inevitability of dirty dishes, which is very helpful in my life as an independent person.
In the event that I have a family some day, I hope that we’ll all partake in the cooking/eating/cleaning together.

Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

My family grew up eating and cooking together. From what I remember my mom and dad (who both worked) shared the cooking duties – my mom did most of the shopping though. I never used to understand why she would get irritated when she would ask me and my brother “what do you want to eat for dinner this week?” and we would respond with “I dunno… whatever.” Thinking of meals is hard! Currently my boyfriend and I plan/shop together, but he usually does most of the cooking, and I usually do most of the dishes.

Tangent: when my brother was little, whenever my mom asked him what he wanted to eat for dinner, he would say spaghetti every single time. So my parents did an experiment where we had spaghetti every day for a month (with varying salads and sides) to see if he would notice and get tired of it. I wised up around week 2, but at the end of the month, my brother still wanted spaghetti every day.

garli (#4,150)

I fully reject your everyone does everything theory. I do what I’m better at and my husband does what he’s better at. He’d way rather clean and eat what I make then have me clean and eat his cooking.

My feminist version of family cooking is that every family does what ever works best for them. It’s similar to how you can be a stay at home mom or a career lady because it’s your life.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@garli I think this applies more to families with kids than couples. Kids should learn to handle all parts of the dinner life cycle!

clo (#4,196)

@garli i so agree. for example i always unload the dishwasher, because my wife hates it and i don’t care. there are things she does 99% of the time. it feels really equal and if not we discuss and make changes as needed. also it’s nice to know that you can chill and let the other person do their job and then switch roles, instead of always having to be ‘on’ and help at every task. it sounds exhausting!

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

I use the ten minute trick to get dishes done: after dinner, I wash dishes for ten minutes (I set a timer and everything); when the ten minutes have elapsed, I am free to walk away without guilt. Usually I am done with the dishes or have one or two things left which I just wash anyways. For a family you might need more than 10 minutes but you would be surprised at how quickly you can wash a sinkful of dishes… it feels like *forever* but it’s probably only 12-15 minutes.

womb bat (#3,498)

I am a huge proponent of NOT letting dishes sit. If they sit overnight, especially on a week night, they’re that much more likely to be sitting there all the next day. If I come home and there’s a ton of dishes AND cooking to do, forget it.

Markovaa (#1,509)

There is a great blog called Dinner, A Love Story (http://www.dinneralovestory.com/) which is all about pulling together easy and quick family dinners. I love it because, while I don’t have a family to feed, I don’t want to spend three hours cooking when I get home from work every night. I want something fast, healthy and delicious. They deliver.

Also, recent studies have shown that you don’t HAVE to do family dinner to get many of the benefits. Apparently, Family breakfast can be just as helpful or family ice cream time when a late working parent gets home. The idea is to have people spend time together.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@Markovaa Oooh, am meal planning right now and will check this out, thanks!

j a y (#3,935)

I cooked all celebration dinners from about 15… So I’m not sure it’s always a sexist thing. Heh and my sister convinced my parents that she was allergic to dish soap… And that gloves were impractical.

To this day I dislike doing dishes but, as mentioned above, when I set up a TV show to watch while I do it, I realize it only takes 10 minutes.

RachelW (#2,605)

This is great just for the “Supermarkets are not Red Tents.”

CaitlinChats (#7,168)

“Supermarkets are not Red Tents” Preach. I will be sharing this with my husband when I get home.

guenna77 (#856)

my family did the all-around-the-table thing as much as we could. my mom would do most of the cooking, but she had no problem with short-cuts and partly-prepared foods. my dad usually only did things involving grilling, but he was usually working right until dinner time and worked more after. (plus, he is an awful cook on the stove- even when he does cook, no one wants to eat what he produces, other than steaks). my brother and i helped a bit with the cooking, as much as we could. one of us set the table and one did dishes. the one who set it had to vacuum too. but the point in the end was to sit around the table for an hour and talk, whether it was home-cooked and fancy or a chicken from boston market. i would say that influenced us, but not necessarily in a sexist way… my brother is the cook in his house now and i am in mine.

i do feel a lot of anxiety over it though. like, we try to do mostly fresh things because my BF gets severe migraines. it’s hard to wash everything, chop everything, and get it all cooked and not have it be 10PM by the time we eat. i find it’s easiest for me if i buy a bunch of stuff over the weekend and then loosely plan out the week- a list of all the ingredients in the fridge that are perishable, and then i list several things i can make large batches of for dinner and lunch with those ingredients, and see if i need to buy anything new. takes maybe half an hour on a Sunday morning and then i use that as a road map for the week. also, i buy pre-chopped and measured meals from scratchDC once every week or two. best thing ever. it’s faster than a totally home-cooked meal, and cheaper and healthier than take-out.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@guenna77 I do that, too! Plus, the nights before the nights on which I cook dinner, I do all the prep work. That way, when I get home, everything is ready to just be tossed on the stove.

cryptolect (#1,135)

What I couldn’t believe from that article was the sheer amount of brattiness on the part of the non-cooks. Yes, if your house is filled with ingrates, you will grow to despise and dread cooking. My dad made dinner every night and we were taught to express our appreciation. I was a picky eater and was given free reign to make myself a peanut butter sandwich if the food wasn’t to my taste.

julebsorry (#1,572)

I’m always surprised at the families that use the “whoever cooks doesn’t have to clean” model. In my experience, that leaves no incentive for the cook to minimize dishes, and is more likely to result in the designated cleaner facing a wrecked kitchen. In my family, whoever cooks usually cleans as well, and then we alternate dinner nights between my husband and I. Realistically, I cook and clean up more often, since I work fewer hours and am home earlier…but I know if I don’t have to clean up after myself, I’m much less likely to wash as I go, or be aware of excessive pot and utensil use.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@julebsorry Yes, my husband and I used to have this setup, but he likes to wash up as he goes and I am more of a “use every dish in the apartment” person, so we switched it up.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@julebsorry Yes, when I had that system with roommates in a “communal cooking” situation, what wound up happening is that some people would want to actually avoid the dinners when others cooked just so they wouldn’t be on the hook for dishes. Or they would be like “eeeh we’ll do them tomorrow,” so if I were cooking and there was food to put away, stuff that needed soaking, or dishes already in the sink, I’d be like “guess I’ll get started then….”

Not sure what the solution is though. I really felt like people’s mom in that apartment. When you’re someone’s actual mom, you can’t even try to get people to act like responsible adults as a given, desirable goal.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@eatmoredumplings I heard once about a system in which there was a set order in which people were responsible for the dishes, no matter who dirtied them. As soon as you emptied the sink you could pass the baton off to the next person. In theory, this sounds terrible, but in practice what happened was, no one wanted to wash a sink full of dishes when they could just wash, say, two plates, and the sink never got the chance to fill up.

clo (#4,196)

@julebsorry i use this system and am fine with it. first of all we have a dishwasher, so really i’m just washing pots/pans/knives and second i don’t mind the quantity as much as doing the dishes at all. so i feel like it works for us pretty well. plus in your system you say you do more of the work. in ours it feels very equal and we each do what we are better at. sometimes we switch it up but in general there’s no resentment because we both helped out.

EmilyStarr (#4,035)

I’m a better cook than my husband (I’m faster, better able to improvise, etc.), so tend to cook more than he does. He grills when we’re doing that, as he grew up with one, and I didn’t. Whoever doesn’t cook watches/plays with the kids or does whatever else needs to be done pre-dinner. We usually shop as a family, but he’s more likely to go if only one of us is going. We plan as a family, with the kids each getting to pick one meal a week (they’re 5 and 2, so it is usually grilled cheese or something along those lines these days, but we’re not pushing it). The 5-year old helps clear the table and is helping load the dishwasher (as is the 2-year old, but less effectively…). In theory, the non-cook does dishes, but, in practice, I hate for dishes to sit in the sink, so will do them if it looks like that’s going to happen. On the other hand, my husband does almost all the laundry, including folding and ironing, and I don’t mind doing dishes.

The problem with the Slate piece, and even the study underlying it, is that they bury the lede: It’s not the cooking sucks. It’s that being poor sucks, and being a poor woman sucks even more (to be clear: not because there’s anything inherently bad about being a woman, but because women seldom get just and equal treatment in this world). Yes, cooking is expensive, as Marcotte and the study note, but it’s still the cheapest option. When the cheapest option is too costly, the problem is fundamentally economic.

@Josh Michtom@facebook Good point. Also, seriously religious men still thank god every morning for not having been born a woman. (“Sheh lo asa mi ishta”: some context and explanation here http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Liturgy_and_Prayers/Siddur_Prayer_Book/Preliminary_Readings/Who_Has_Not_Made_Me_a_Woman.shtml) When they stop being grateful, I’ll stop being angry.

Sloane (#675)

@Josh Michtom@facebook A church-run food pantry in my neighborhood is always happy to receive food donations, but they also suggest donations of kitchen equipment or even time to teach people to cook. It’s hard to live on rice and beans when you don’t have the pan to cook them in!

Monica (#7,691)

My live-in BF and I work nearly-opposite schedules (me: M-F, him: Fri-Sat-Sun), so whoever has the day off makes dinner and does daily household stuff. It is SO NICE to come home to dinner already on the table! And we’re pretty appreciative of each other’s efforts, because we know firsthand what’s involved.

(On the other hand, our schedule means that we don’t get a lot of free time together.)

Also, from the article:

3) Nobody gets dessert til dinner is put away. But then everybody gets dessert!

4) Some people like pot

… wut? Does pot make cleanup easier? Or is it something that people like for dessert? :)

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

My dad worked nights (by choice) and my mom worked full time and attended grad school during my teen years. I often did the cooking and the cleaning up. I wish I could have had family dinners. If I ever have a family, I want the everybody-pitch-in dynamic.

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