Cooking Real Food Isn’t as Hard as the Food Industry Wants Moms to Believe

When Pamela Koch walks in the door with her family at 6:30 in the evening, she pulls a bowl of vegetables out of the fridge and dumps them into a pan waiting on the stove. She’s been home from work for less than a minute, yet dinner is underway. “If we’re really hungry, there’s something psychological about, ‘It’s already cooking,’” explains Koch. That’s why she pre-chops the vegetables at 6:30 in the morning.

Many people think that real, local food is a luxury reserved for families with a stay-at-home parent who has nothing else to do but obsess over supper menus, while working parents give their kids frozen dinners made mostly of petroleum byproducts and corn syrup. “There is the assumption that women who are working full-time are career-focused and therefore not family-focused,” says Koch, an adjunct associate professor and executive director of the Center for Food & the Environment at Teachers College, Columbia University. However, she says, “if you plan ahead a little bit and are committed to eating locally and having home cooked meals, it is very possible.”

Unfortunately, the food industry turns its profit by encouraging people to buy processed foods. Says Joan Gussow, who has authored many books about food and ecology, including the seminal text of the local-food movement, This Organic Life,

I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods about the need for complex meals that ties right in with what the manufacturers want to sell us. If you’re trying to make a complicated dish, then it’s easier to buy it even if it’s lousy.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to make a dish with six ingredients, cooking from scratch can be fast and easy. But the food industry doesn’t benefit as much when people cook simple meals, so it manufactures demand for complicated food choices. “The mere idea that the 30,000 or 40,000 things in the supermarket are there because of consumer demand is just a lie,” says Gussow.

But what about the argument that processed food freed women from the kitchen, allowing them to join the workforce? That’s a myth, says food-writer Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. The food industry produced military rations during World War II, then after the war turned to making similar processed foods and marketing them to civilians. Shapiro says that although women–and mothers in particular–were entering the workforce in large numbers post-WWII, this is not because they could suddenly get dinner out of a box or the freezer. “It took the food industry some 20 years to convince Americans that cooking real food was too much trouble,” she says.

Today, the suggestion that parents might cook from scratch smacks of regression to a repressive family model, with Mom tethered to the kitchen. But, as one family discovered, it’s not about mothers going back to cooking, it’s about parents–and, indeed, most of the population–learning about food again. People are used to thinking food comes out of a box or a can. Explains Shapiro,

People not being accustomed to cooking is a bigger barrier than money or class or any of those other things that people are bringing into the discussion [of real food.] If you have never cooked, it seems very difficult and very threatening,

The real-food movement unintentionally furthers these misconceptions by upping the ante. Shapiro acknowledges that many people feel overwhelmed by purism:

It used to be that we could all feel very nice that we were putting a pork chop on the table instead of takeout. But no, then it had to be some local pig that you knew personally. Then you had to butcher the thing yourself.

Not many of us are up to butchering our own pigs, and Gussow and Shapiro underscore that parents’ lives have become increasingly pressured since the days when women did all the cooking. So Shapiro advises setting realistic goals for family dinner: Sometimes people need to just order a pizza.

What we don’t have to buy is the assumption that working mothers don’t care if their kids eat chemicals. That’s a fiction designed to sell frozen dinners.

Photo from Flickr user naotakem licensed under Creative Commons.

Comments

  1. Getting dinner on the table is a struggle for any Mom, working or SAHM. But it can be done, and I’ve learned, from 18 months on Weight Watchers, that it can be done without relying on pre-packaged garbage. I’ve learned tricks and shortcuts; I cook chicken breasts in ridiculously large amounts so I can slice them and use them in salads, wraps, and fajitas, and I spend obscene amounts of money on pre-sliced/chopped/diced produce, but it has paid off for my family in a big way. Do I have convenience foods that I turn to on busy nights? Yep. But they don’t come from a box or a drive through. Convenience foods used to be Hamburger Helper or Stouffer’s Lasagne. Now? It’s soup and salad or grilled cheese on whole grain bread with fruit or quesadillias and black beans. It just takes a little retraining. And soon, it becomes unthinkable to eat the way you did before. I’ve lost 75 lbs, my husband has lost 65lbs, and my youngest son, who was developing a weight problem, has gone down three pants sizes. Even my oldest son, who is naturally tall and lean, has benefitted. It’s worth the effort to form new habits.

  2. Thank you – yes! I work part-time with a schedule that is all over the map. I have to constantly remind myself that cooking is not a chore. I also need to remind myself that simple healthy meals are all my family really needs. Save the super complicated stuff for the holidays!

    I also have, at time, bought into the myth that real food is too expensive. It does seem sometimes that some of what is being sold is too expensive, but that is usually a sign that I am focusing on some of the wrong stuff.

  3. Hear hear! I’d rather have a plain hamburger with a green salad than almost anything from the supermarket. We buy meat in bulk and belong to a CSA, so there’s always something. Sure, we rely on pasta and an occasional take-out (or even frozen) pizza, but 19 out of 20 meals in our house are home-cooked from minimally processed ingredients. It’s just a question of priorities.

  4. Right on, Emily! You’re exactly right… we don’t need to make preparing dinner mission impossible. Good, fresh, healthy food can be prepared quickly and easily and taste delicious! Farm Aid has tips on how busy parents and all eaters can find and prepare farm-fresh food. Check out http://www.farmaid.org/puttingitintopractice for more.

  5. Great article!

    I cook pretty much every night (and morning, for that matter) and when we have pizza, I make it from scratch. But I realize that I have a few advantages that others may lack.

    (1) My job is fairly low stress, not physically taxing and the hours are predictable, so I can count on being home by 5:30 or so.

    (2) I like to cook.

    (3) I live in an area with easy access to CSAs, farmers’ markets and organic produce

    If any of these things weren’t true, I imagine that cooking from scratch would be much more of a chore.

  6. Virginia says:

    Great article. The only issue I have w/ this is not mentioning sharing meal duty w/ your partner. It’s not always easy being the one getting up earlier everyday to prep food for supper and then immediately coming home to start the meal. Share the load w/ your partner and your kids! Have them be in charge of a meal a couple times a week. No need to think being an isolated mom in the kitchen is the only way to be!

    • Absolutely. My husband and I share meal duties almost equally. We both work, so it just makes sense. Plus, he loves coming up with new meals and is much more creative in the kitchen than I am. Making a meal plan for the week and sharing duties is how we are able to eat home-cooked meals every weeknight.

      • Who says you even have to share cooking duties equally? My mom is the breadwinner and my dad is the cook. Works great for my family.

  7. Katherine says:

    I certainly agree with the general premise of this article. But I don’t think we should minimize the problem that many poor members of urban communities face — minimal access to grocery stores, let alone a good selection of local produce. Coupled with a drive to eat/cook locally, we should also be championing greater access to local foods in areas saturated with McDonalds but missing even a single, decent grocery store.

    • Katherine, although that was outside of the scope of this article, I couldn’t agree more. I have been hearing about some wonderful projects organized so that farmers and gardeners can donate directly to food pantries. If you look into Gussow’s and Koch’s work, you’ll see that the food deserts are a big concern for both of them, and both have worked to change that. Click on the link to Koch’s center.

      • Amy Williams says:

        “Many people think that real, local food is a luxury reserved for families with a stay-at-home parent”

        Katherine’s comment isn’t outside the scope of this article. Real, local food often IS a luxury. There’s an assumption here that simple ingredients are available/affordable, and that’s because this article was written for a more class-privileged audience. I do think that it’s important to acknowledge the fact of economic coersion, because, if we’re all really just being duped into buying processed foods (if simple, good cooking is possible for all of us) then we can blame low-income families for their own malnutrition without addressing structural inequalities that contribute to their own inability to access good foods.

      • Laughingrat says:

        How is that outside the scope of this article? Are poor families, or for that matter, families where the person doing much of the meal prep are living with health or disability issues that affect their ability to cook, somehow Other while wealthy or more-privileged families are the Norm? Perhaps authors should explicitly state that they’re only speaking to upper-middle-class, white, able-bodied women when they post articles like these.

        The fact of the matter is, “real food” takes time, money, and energy. I am a huge fan of eating local, organic, non-processed foods, and that takes a dedication of resources that many people don’t have. While supporting people to cook more non-processed, nutritious foods is great, and debunking corporate myths is great, there’s a lot of stuff tied up with food issues. That stuff isn’t “outside the scope” of discussions about ease of cooking or ease of access to local foods.

  8. Well said! I especially like the observation about simplicity. You know what’s amazing? Having to say to kids, don’t eat all the vegetables, leave some for Dad. That about made my jaw fall open.

  9. I work outside of the home a LOT and can honestly say frozen vegetables are a savior. Sure, they’re not farm fresh but there’s only one ingredient in that package and it’s just as good for you! My boss raised two kids while working a demanding career and she always swore by some dish where she cooked pasta (just wheat) and tossed some garlic and cheese and fresh spinach and threw a few frozen shrimp in there for protein. It took her 20 minutes. She didn’t like to cook either. I bake pumpkin bread, cookies and cupcakes and freeze them in individual slices. Voila – I’m on a business trip and the kid can still have a homemade afternoon snack.

    So yes, it can be done. If you want to. Just like you said. Regardless of where or how often you work.

  10. I have been on a crusade to help everyone I know cook at home. I’ve worked both full and part time since I was married right after college in 1976. When cooking on the weekends I worked I gave my husband 3 options: we eat out, we don’t eat OR he cooks the evening meal. He learned to cook, starting with simple spaghetti with meatsauce and now he cooks all weekend even if I’m not working. A family’s cooking needs change over the years also. When our son lived with us I usually got home first and with a general meal plan each week got dinner on the table in 30 to 40 minutes. After our son grew up, I tend to cook two meals on my day off. Each meal supplies us empty-nesters for 2 evenings. My spouse cooks all weekend and the 7th day we eat out or fix something fast. We maintain a well stocked pantry and freezer. There are always sandwich and breakfast fixings available. I freezed batches of homemade waffles and soup. I think home cooking is a creative activity one can choose to do everyday. I am lucky that my spouse does so much good cooking and always does his share of the grocery shopping. My son quickly found out after living on his own that the way to stretch his food dollar is to cook at home. We knew life had come full circle when we got home from work one evening to find our adult son had left us a pot roast and vegetables simmering in our slow cooker.

    My motto is: home cooking is the most delicious, nutritious, economical and safe you can eat.

    CJ of CJ’s recipe

  11. My challenge isn’t work alone, it is work and then three kids in a myriad of afternoon/evening/weekend activities. I try to rely as little on packaged foods as possible. But, I also need to be realistic and realize that I can’t do everything. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy finding new recipes using fresh,local ingredients. Seasonal cooking is something I am learning as there are not too many fresh local fruits and veggies available in February where I live.

    What I don’t enjoy is coming home from work and immediately preparing food and hoping that we get to eat it, in between activities, maybe with more than the majority of my family present at the same time. And then supervising clean-up just in time to start preparing food for the next day….

    Sometimes that Little Ceaser’s Hot And Ready $5 pizza is just too good of a deal to pass up.

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