10/06/2014 05:24 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST

Family Dinners Don't Have to Be Perfect

A recent study calling family dinners 'elitist' and 'unrealistic' has ruffled some feathers. I don't think family dinners or home cooking for one or more is elitist and unrealistic, but I do think that we have to temper our expectations of ourselves down to what is doable under the circumstances of our lives.

Ariel Skelley

Family dinners are having a moment. As a dietitian, I always extol the virtues of cooking at home, eating together, and ensuring that meals are made with mostly fresh foods. That's my professional and personal stance, even though in my own house, like everyone else's, it sometimes doesn't happen.

A recent study calling family dinners 'elitist' and 'unrealistic' has ruffled some feathers. The researchers, sociologists from the University of North Carolina, decided to question if the pressure to produce a home cooked meal is indeed worth the payoff in the end. The mothers in the study, who were from middle, low, and working class families, "had largely internalized the message that home-cooked meals had become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen."

The lack of kitchen basics like fresh produce and tools was cited as a major barrier for the women in the study, as were the complaints of family members about the food the women were cooking. Women from middle class families were concerned that they couldn't afford all organic food for their families, and this gave them a sense of failure because they felt that they weren't providing the best food for their families.

It seems as though the women interviewed were going for a romanticized version of the family dinner, when perhaps they should be considering what they can do, rather than what they can't. I have seen people rise to the occasion and be resourceful when they need to, and those are the people put their health and the health of their families as a priority. I have also seen people use excuse after excuse to allow themselves to be a victim of their circumstances and to continue the same unhealthful behavior. Of course there are people who live in extremely poor conditions and the above does not apply to them, lest you think I'm a heartless person all around. But why not take the study one step further and do some research on families (including fathers!) who are successful at cooking and feeding their families?

I think part of the issue is society's obsession with the 'must-haves': must be organic. Must be local. Must be unprocessed. Must be eaten together on a table in the kitchen. It's enough to intimidate people who are already confused about what they should be eating and whose resources may be limited. Feeling that you've failed your family if you don't buy all organic foods is just sad.

But then, as if to punctuate that thought, here comes Sam Sifton in the New York Times, pontificating with his 'cooking manifesto', about how people should just get over themselves and cook a chicken on a weeknight. Not just any chicken, mind you, but an organic chicken from the butcher because it "tastes better," and the butcher can even spatchcock it for you! Maybe Mr. Sifton assumes that the readership of the Times are those people who can readily afford, in time and finances, to hit up the organic butcher after a busy day in order to 'just cook', as he puts it. Simple, right?

And 'spatchcock'? Who even knows what that means? Maybe I missed that because I was rolling my eyes so much as I was reading the article.

The foodie culture is overwhelming for many folks who have never thought of food as something to be cherished, and there are many of those people out there. As someone who was privileged enough to grow up with parents who taught me to cook at an early age and to love good food, I appreciate it, and I search it out, but I've made it my life's work to educate people about it. And by 'good' food, I mean, fresh, not necessarily expensive, food.

Understanding that many of my clients feel that meals need to be a big production and are so overwhelmed by the thought that they don't even try to cook, I teach them what I truly believe: that to cook simple and easy food is doable for most people, no matter who they are. I have clients who don't have working ovens, who don't know how to cook, and whose kitchens are overrun with roaches. I have clients who have no money left at the end of the month and who use foodbanks on a regular basis. Their barriers are not easily overcome, but it can be done.

See, this is where I feel the family dinner study and Sam Sifton have failed -- because they perpetuate that pressure of the complicated, expensive family dinner. Try simple, non-organic, $6 roasted chicken with potatoes. Pasta with a can of tuna and frozen peas. A grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Bean salad with rice. All of these are reasonably-priced, easy to make meals, made with a minimum of skill, prep time, and kitchen implements.

I also teach how to be prepared, so even those who work shiftwork can return home to food that they've batch cooked in advance. People can do their best where cooking and eating is concerned, and they don't need the pressure of being perfect.

I don't think family dinners or home cooking for one or more is elitist and unrealistic, but I do think that we have to temper our expectations of ourselves down to what is doable under the circumstances of our lives. We need to have the courage to explore why it's not happening now, and what we can do to fix that.

We also need to increase access to basic cooking classes and nutrition classes. People who identify as 'foodies' talk about getting down to basics with their food, but getting down to basics doesn't need to mean anything beyond a rudimentary cooking lesson and some bare-bones kitchen staples such as in-season fruit and vegetables, bread, milk, and eggs.

Cooking isn't always joyful or easy, but empowering those who need empowerment the most -- the financially disadvantaged, people who work long hours, and lastly, the apathetic -- will go a long way to creating a culture where the nurturing power of home-cooked food reaches through barriers and feeds families.