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Working Moms Killed the Family Meal? No, They Did Not.

By Madeline Holler |

Where did the wholesome, home-cooked family meal go?

Reading Michael Pollan‘s latest in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, you’d think it marched out the front door, leaving slotted spoon behind, to find a female lover and a consciousness-raising meeting with extra space. Hey! Why is that pot roast burning a bra?

But is feminism at fault? Can working moms just not be bothered to throw down in the kitchen these days?

As Anna Clark points out over on Salon’s Broadsheet, Pollan tends to blame second-wave feminism for the death of home cookin’, the rise of fast food and the undermining of democracy. Clark quotes Pollan on Janet A. Flammang’s book The Taste of Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society.

In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating “foodwork” — everything involved in putting meals on the family table — we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal.

Mothers refused the demeaning task of dicing onions, the argument goes, so children were no longer tucking into fresh baked dinner rolls, veggie-dense stews and warm bubbling cobblers — while also engaging their elders about the issues of the day. Instead, they were plopped in front of the TV, foiled dinners on their laps. Eventually, they scarfed down burritos in the car. All so mom could get off on being equal!

Clark argues food isn’t just women’s work, and she’s right. And we all know men are stepping up (sometimes taking over) in the kitchen — a good thing.

But blaming working women, lazy men and feminism for a generation of bad eating and disparate sit-down dinners ignores the fact that Americans have been eating crappy food — for generations! Talk of real food didn’t happen on a nationwide scale until cable TV launched Food Network in the 1990s, leaving parents my age and some younger, to totally start over in how we think about feeding our kids. We didn’t have great role models, who also didn’t have great role models, who also? Might not have had great role models.

I think one thing that binds Gen Xers more than Gilligan’s Island and a secret love of Styx is the sheer blandness of the foods we were raised on. Back then, lettuce was iceberg, chicken was seasoned with Shake ‘n’ Bake and Mamwich made a meal. My kids’ grandparents cooked a lot of Stove Top and Betty Crocker, not to mention amassing a pretty sweet collection of reusable Lean Cuisine plates.

My grandparents served even more Betty Crocker, canned fruits and vegetables (not home canned, I’m talking Del Monte), and oleo (margarine plus an iodine pack!). When Michael Pollan suggests the food rule, “eat only ingredients your grandmother would recognize,” I’d have to say even I wouldn’t pollute my body like that. Unless you were lucky enough to be raised by new immigrants or Julia Child devotees, your people have probably been chowing on garbage for more than half a century.

But crappy food aside, it’s feminism’s affect on the family meal that Flammang and Pollan are bothered by. I’d argue, again, this one’s got nothing to do with Betty Friedan either, rather governmental policies favoring big corporations over family support. Pollan even alludes to it without actually connecting the dots himself.

Besides drawing women into the work force, falling wages made fast food both cheap to produce and a welcome, if not indispensible, option for pinched and harried families. The picture of the food economy [Eric] Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation] painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as “Fordism”: instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food. The advent of fast food (and cheap food in general) has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America.

Falling wages, beginning in the 1970s, forced more and more families to bring in second (and third and fourth) incomes. Missing family dinners is not necessarily that mom found her identity through working outside the home (though nothing is wrong with it if she did!), it’s that she’s had to work so much outside the home. (Incidentally, poor, working- and middle-class moms have been going to jobs since forever! Did Stephanie Koontz teach us nothing?). Dad had to crank up the work hours, too, over the years. To pay the mortgage for a home in a decent school district, to pay for childcare, to save for college, to buy health insurance … to pay for food. Because local, state and federal laws and policies often worked against families’ best interests.

Women’s lack of excitement for cooking didn’t kill the family meal. This country’s lack of interest in family matters, however? Yes, that’s got a lot to do with it.

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Photo: LIFE

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Working Moms Killed the Family Meal? No, They Did Not.

  1. jennifer says:

    I *love* that these articles always focus on working moms. Like SAHMs are all Betty Homemakers who have a nutritious dinner waiting for their family to sit down and enjoy together at the end of the day. Sans TV, naturally.

  2. jennifer says:

    I *love* that these articles always focus on working moms. Like SAHMs are all Betty Homemakers who have a nutritious, cooked from scratch dinner waiting for their family to sit down and enjoy together at the end of the day. Sans TV, naturally.

  3. Manjari says:

    I love this post! I think people romanticize the past so much, they forget about potato buds and hamburger helper!

    Because I love food, I do happen to make nutritious meals from scratch on most nights, and I don’t know that I will keep it up in exactly the same way when I start working. I know nutrition will still be important, but I imagine I might keep it simple if I get home shortly before dinner (or make things ahead sometimes). I know when things have been really busy, I have embraced short cuts that I normally wouldn’t use (thanks Trader Joe’s!).

  4. diera says:

    I don’t know why healthy, home-cooked food and a ‘family meal’ are being conflated. I think healthy food is good, and eating together is good, but they’re not the same thing. My family has had some great moments bonding together over locally-raised pork and farmer’s market corn, but we’ve also had some great moments at the local Waffle House, where (because I am one of those working moms) the cook knows us by name. Given the choice of throwing the healthy food or the family meal under the bus, we’d rather eat together every time, even if what we’re eating isn’t the best food.

  5. Laure68 says:

    Manjari – “I think people romanticize the past so much…” I could not agree more with this statement. I remember TV dinners on a tray in front of the TV.

    This is where I dislike Michael Pollan. He really romanticizes the past. He talks about when people used to render their own fats, but that is because they had to. People had terribly hard lives back then. Do we really want to go back to those days? And actually people were much less healthy, and died at a much younger age. I recently read an interview with Pollen by Tara Parker-Pope (one of my least favorite writers), and they were gushing about how much healthier our ancestors were, when the opposite is actually true. Unbelievable.

  6. Laure68 says:

    btw, in The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner he makes a case that people in the past did not eat together as a family as much as we thought. He showed articles dating from the 1920′s complaining of how “these days” nobody eats dinner together and a father barely knows his family.

  7. MomofBeans says:

    I think, for my own mental health, I need to stop reading any post with “Working Mom” in the title (creeping over to Famecrawler now).

  8. PlumbLucky says:

    The only reason my family tree on the one side ate wholesome food was because they were broke (and couldn’t afford the new convenience foods) and were farmers. I’m thankful for that because it actually means I know how to can, make jams and jellies, etc. But I agree – this guy spends far too much time romanticizing a past that existed only for a few, and most often on television.

  9. Amanda says:

    My grandmother worked fulltime as a band teller and managed to cook dinner every night for her family. I don’t think this issue is about working mothers so much as it’s about the availability of cheap convience foods. Even a lot of SAHMs rely on McDonald’s and the microwave simply because they can.

  10. Amanda says:

    * bank teller

  11. ChicaDificil says:

    Ugh, this society does such a good job at at instilling anxiety into women. Seriously, women turn their children into psychological wrecks, make people fat by not spending enough time in the kitchen, are never thin enough to look god in the swimsuit, are too wrinkly once they hit past thirty. Men have it so easy in comparison. Where is their role in all of this. Why is the message not that fathers should spend more time cooking or doing chores now that their wives are working? Why are men considered dashing when they develop wrinkles around their eyes and some grey hair?

  12. pollyanna says:

    Word on how many Americans have been eating like crap forever. And actually, a lot of it is crappy not because the women didn’t put hella time and effort into cooking family meals but because the kinds of food they worked so hard to cook were completely antithetical to the kinds of nutritional and aesthetic principles Pollan and most of his generation and social class espouse. Virtually ALL of the recipes handed down to my mother from her mother and mother-in-law (assimilated, high school educated working and middle class women who both started their families and left the paid workforce right after WWII), and many of which were handed down from their own mothers’ 1920s and 30s kitchens, have as their major ingredients things like Campbell’s soup, marshmallow fluff, canned vegetables, canned fruit in heavy syrup, mayonnaise, and scads of other highly processed, fatty, sugary, and/or salty canned goods. Most of them probably originated on food packages or in recipe books they saved up their box tops to send off for, and so did millions of other American women because they were barraged by marketing that taught them that this was precisely the kind of wholesome, budget-friendly family meals that devoted full-time homemakers should be slaving over a hot stove to provide for their families, as any scan of women’s magazines or mainstream recipe books from most of the twentieth century makes abundantly clear.

  13. [...] Sorry Michael Pollan, Working Moms Did Not Kill Dinner [...]

  14. [...] Jun Reprinted from original post by Madeline Holler on May 27th, 2010 at 5:39 [...]

  15. Huh? says:

    Interestingly (to me, anyway) I was the child of two recent immigrants with hippie/neo survivalist/cheap tendancies; so we grew vegetables, kept rabbits and chickens, and ate food that marked me as an outsider at school- whole grain bread that looked like a brick, unsalted butter and German cold cuts, etc. In general, we ate (other than the cold cuts, of course) weird and unprocessed food, much of it from our own back yard (or hutch, or coop). So I find it bizarre that this local/natural/whole food thing is turning into such a class war. I don’t deny that eating local, organic, etc. can be pricy, but there are some assumptions about what belongs on a dinner plate (ie meat, every day, in quantity) that are undeniably expensie in terms of $ and health. Eat some beans and rice, people, have a tomato sandwich. A “meal” or “family dinner” doesn’t have to cost in terms of time, $ or health when you don’t adhere to American notions about what what “needs” to be on your plate.

  16. Huh? says:


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