Are Family Dinners Anti-Feminist?

What 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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