In a time of Pinterest-perfect recipes, meal-planning apps, meal-prep posts, and the rise of mommy food bloggers, the average parent might feel pressured that they should — nay, MUST — create daily, creative, made-from-scratch meals for their family.
Combine that with experts urging parents to do just that (using plant-based proteins and whole grains, please and thanks), articles on the importance of teaching your kids to cook, and ongoing research on the importance of family dinner, and a mom or dad might even equate home cooking with good parenting.
And that's not only a problem, but sets unrealistic expectations and puts stress on a lot of families, a UBC sociologist says in her new book, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.
"We need to uncouple the package deal that links home cooking and family dinners with being a good mother. If you're feeling overwhelmed, put a frozen pizza in the oven or, if you have the resources, go out for a meal," Sinikka Elliott said in a Q and A posted on the UBC website.
"While food is important for health, it isn't the only thing that matters."
WATCH: Why family dinners are important for teens. Story continues below.
Elliott is a sociologist, not a health professional, and her research focuses on the challenges parents face to feed their families, not the health benefits of cooking vs. eating processed foods, which are already well established.
For her research, Elliott, along with co-authors Sarah Bowen of North Carolina State University and Joslyn Brenton of Ithaca College, interviewed hundreds of women as part of a five-year study in North Carolina.
In Pressure Cooker, Elliott, Bowen and Brenton tell the stories of nine of these women. Elliott said she was "awed" by the amount of work put into cooking on a restricted budget, including one mom who kept a binder of coupons organized by grocery store aisle.
Time was also a "huge stumbling block," Elliott noted, and one that affected all families in the study.
Time is a huge challenge (especially for moms)
Previous research has consistently shown that the time and effort of cooking is a challenge for parents. U.S. research from 2015 suggests that part of the problem may be the rise of both genders working outside the house.
"People don't have the time for dinner that they used to," Harry Balzer, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group, previously told the Washington Post.
A 2011 study found that working moms multitask and have more stress about it than dads, and preparing dinner was one of the tasks that tended to fall to the moms. Paradoxically, a 2017 study found that parents who are stressed out are less likely to cook homemade meals.
And the research that inspired Pressure Cooker — published in a 2014 study called The Joy Of Cooking?— found that mothers are disproportionately burdened by home cooking.
"Though the mothers we met were squeezed for time, they were still expected to produce elaborate meals cooked from scratch. Even the middle-class women we talked with, who enjoyed regular work hours and typically shared the household work with a partner, said they lacked the time to cook the way they felt they should," Elliott, Bowen and Brenton said in the study.
"Most got home from work around six o'clock, and then attempted to cook meals from scratch (as the experts advise) while their children clamoured for their attention."
Children are the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods
Yet, the reasons to cook from scratch are compelling.
In 2017, the Heart and Stroke Foundation that found children are the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods, getting more than half their calories from foods such as pre-prepared ready-to-eat meals, sugary drinks, fatty, sugary or salty snacks, candy, and sweetened cereals.
The products that provide the most calories in our diets are "pre-prepared, ready-to-eat dishes" such as pizza, burgers, sandwiches and frozen dishes, followed by packaged breads and sweetened drinks, the foundation found.
They added that unhealthy diets are now the leading risk factor for death in Canada.
"Canadians should eat and cook at home as often as possible and in the company of others," the foundation wrote in a news release.
The Canadian Paediatric Society notes that "the best foods are whole, fresh and unprocessed—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and meats; and home-cooked meals." And Canada's new food guide urges Canadians to "cook more often."
Keep food in perspective
Pressure to make home-cooked meals and prioritize family dinner has been on the rise since the 2000s, Elliott said in the Q and A.
She recommends parents keep food in perspective and remember there's more to a family's well-being than home-cooked meals (such as not being constantly stressed!). Elliott also urged communities and policy-makers to become equally invested in feeding families.
"We need to stop asking families to do it on their own."
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