Choices

May 18th, 2010 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Kitchenlightenment

The pre-dinner scramble. (Photo by Jenny Livingston.)

Last week on my Babble blog I asked readers what they thought of Michael Ruhlman’s HuffPo rant about parents being too “busy” to cook for their kids. Actually, that was only a subset of the rant. Most of Ruhlman’s anger was directed at food editors, cookbook authors, and Food Network stars (even Jamie!) for giving rise to the 30-minute-meal industrial complex…thereby validating the message that parents are too busy to cook, thereby placing those busy, unimaginative parents at the mercy of the convenient, pre-packaged, get-it-to-the-table-fast world of processed food.  (Really? You want to bring Jamie Oliver into this?) I wasn’t surprised that it touched a lot of nerves — and I encourage you to read the entire post as well as the comments that piled up over on Babble — but here on DALS, I feel compelled to write a little more it; or, more specifically, about these two quotes because I can’t stop thinking about them:

“Maybe you don’t like to cook, maybe you’re too lazy to cook, maybe you’d rather watch television or garden, I don’t know and I don’t care, but don’t tell me you’re too busy to cook. We all have the same hours every day, and we all choose how to use them. Working 12-hour days is a choice.”

AND

“..[T]he processed food companies make it easy to blow off cooking for ourselves. And we do so at our peril…. America is too stupid to question whether something is good for it or not (‘Marge, it says snack well right on the box!’). And in the very same way we believe that idiocy, we believe these very same companies telling us how wonderful our lives will be if we buy this low-fat Lean Cuisine because it will save us so much time, only 3 minutes! Used to take seven! You’ve got four extra minutes to play with!”

I’m not crazy about the scolding tone he uses here (parents feel guilty enough without a professionally trained chef rubbing it in, not to mention single parents for whom twelve hour days are actually not a choice) and the assumption that cooking for your family is a categorically pleasant, life-affirming experience is oversimplified to say the least. BUT. BUT. BUT. There was something resonant about the message to me. And that’s because I was a victim of that kind of thinking. When I returned to work after my first maternity leave in 2002, it never even crossed my mind that I would feed Phoebe anything other than what came in a jar. Probably because I was too busy mourning the loss of cooking real meals for myself — since everyone from my relatives to my coworkers to magazine covers was telling me that, now that I was a mother, I was barely going to have enough time to tie my shoes let alone wander the farmer’s market or the aisles of Gourmet Garage in search of ingredients for Coq au vin and Marcella’s milk-braised pork. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself! They all said. You’ll only set yourself up for failure! (And the thing is, I believed them. I remember thinking that parents who made their own baby food were making some kind of statement and/or dealing with deep feelings of maternal inadequacy. I can’t say I’m proud of this, by the way.)

On one level, of course, my support panel was right — I had to think hard about how I chose to spend my discretionary hours since I now had so few of them. But once the baby began sleeping through the night and once the haze on my new reality lifted, it occurred to me that this whole time-crunch thing was something of a blessing. Having a baby clarified some things. It made my choices easy. It gave me a built-in excuse to say no to all the things that I didn’t necessarily enjoy in the first place (Sorry, can’t do drinks tonight! Have to relieve the sitter!) and to say yes to the things that I did.

For me, one of the things that mattered was dinner. That doesn’t mean that cooking for the family has always been easy or that it’s universally satisfying (see: 2002-2005), but it certainly has never been something to write off as impossible, as one arm of conventional wisdom would like you believe. There has always been time for me to make dinner because…you make time for the things you love. Don’t believe anyone – the food industry, the magazine covers, your crazy aunt — who tells you anything different.

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19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Susan // May 18, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Hmmm, interesting. Personally, I don’t love cooking. I am an adequate cook, but I have to follow a recipe. I’m not someone who can instinctively whip something up based on the 5 magic ingredients in my pantry. I have been trying to rely less on processed foods though.

    My successful weeks are those where I’ve done meal planning and consulted my calendar to know when we have after school activities that run right up to the dinner hour or when we need to eat early to leave for a later activity or when I’ve got the night free and clear. If I align my menus appropriately, I can fit it all in. If I neglect to consult the calendar or neglect to meal plan at all, I end up throwing up my hands and resorting to unhealthy choices.

    Personally, I appreciate the professionals who provide quick recipe options because I need the inspiration. There are times for a recipe requiring 26 ingredients, but a Monday when we’re at swim lessons until 5:30 isn’t one of them!

  • 2 jesser // May 18, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    For starters, I am loving this blog. I am a BIG believer in dinner as a family for many reasons and it’s a personal goal of mine to feed my family well.

    This article (the Huff Post one) does set my teeth on edge. I feel like the pressure we’re placed under as parents is tremendous. Everyone is constantly judging from the old lady at the supermarket to the expert in the paper and on TV. If we did everything every “expert” tells us to do for/with our kids, we’d be out of time and money. I am trying very very hard to not judge my fellow parents/human beings on this or any topic.

    I also do not like the insinuation that a meal made in 30 minutes is processed garbage. I have made many a fine meal with good whole foods in 30 minutes (stirfry! fritatta!). Good food does not have to be inaccessible.

  • 3 Megan // May 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    “Having a baby clarified some things. It made my choices easy. It gave me a built-in excuse to say no to all the things that I didn’t necessarily enjoy in the first place and to say yes to the things that I did.”

    So true! I am definitely more productive and doing more of the ‘right’ things now that I have only a small amount of time. Now if only my 8 month old would start sleeping through the night!

  • 4 Michelle @ Pretty Mommy // May 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I think once people get out of the habit of cooking it seems like a much hard task than it actually is…that’s why I’m a big fan of your blog and others for keeping it simple and delicious!!
    ps – so looking forward to your book…very much miss cookie and “if you have…”

  • 5 Tina // May 18, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I agree with Michelle (hi Michelle!) I am so glad I found this blog and I am loving it. As a full time working Mom I struggled with similar messages from other moms. I made my own baby food when others told me I was crazy. (they also told me that breastfeeding wouldn’t last and they were wrong about that!) I don’t really care for the message that having the TIME is a choice…thereby judging me for a day when I don’t have time…I do, however agree that it’s about the priority of your choices. I involve my tot in dinner planning, purchasing and preparing. I want him to appreciate where food comes from, see the importance of working together on the meal and value the experience of eating the product together. Family meals are the norm. For other parents, these are not priorities. The tot across the street can already swing a bat, play catch, and dribble soccer. That family makes sports a priority. (We’re more of a bike riding, nature hiking kind of family).
    I also want to agree that not every night is ideal. There are some nights when I throw things together: beans and rice with veggies and salsa, stir fry, omlets. Does my kid get the occasional fast food or something packaged? Absolutely. Just like everything with parenting, I can’t meet my expecations 100% of the time. But, I am ALWAYS looking for ways to make this easier. Thanks for letting me ramble…great post!

  • 6 Amanda // May 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    The HuffPo article had me grumbling too and it has been coming back to haunt me as I make our dinners I mutter to myself “Who does he think he is?” or “How dare he say that I can’t…” So yeah it struck a chord with me and not a good one. It is so hard to find a healthy balance and these kinds of articles don’t help the cause at all. I am always looking for shortcuts with cooking while still using fresh ingredients and that my family will eat. So while I know my son won’t eat the bell peppers in the stir fry, he will eat the rice, the sauce, the chicken and the snowpeas. Good enough for me. I consider that Mission Accomplished.

  • 7 Cindy // May 18, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Well said. Nice post. Although for me, just in case you’re wondering, the staying home with the kids, breastfeeding, and making baby food was all about compensating for the lack of mothering I received as a child. At least that’s what I think it was. Haven’t run it by my shrink. ;)

  • 8 kathryn // May 18, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    oooo, very interesting topic. Thanks for posting on this. Food and politics, very personal but needs to be discussed more openly – with civility.

  • 9 MemeGRL // May 18, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Ditto Susan, above. My mother died unexpectedly before I had kids and so Rachael Ray and Mark Bittman taught me to cook.
    I think the HuffPo writer is off base blaming Rachael and Jamie (yeah, we’re on a first name basis in this house). Sandra Lee, maybe, but not them. Rachael taught me that fresh spinach is easier to sautee than frozen, and other than, you know, canned chicken stock (horrors!) neither one of them uses lots of pre-packaged foods as shortcuts. Home chefs might (frozen chicken tenders, etc.) but I’m not sure he’s even watched the shows he’s dismissing. Now I want to go back to the original thing he was ranting about.
    Thanks for the great post. Loving this blog!

  • 10 philippat // May 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I suspect for many people “I’m too busy to cook” is actually a cover for “I don’t enjoy cooking” or “I’m not confident about my cooking skills”, in which case a rant is not necessarily going to help.
    A bit of pragmatic support goes a long way – which is one of the reasons I really enjoy this blog!

  • 11 Trish O // May 18, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    I agree with philippat, I think the “i’m to busy” is a cover for “I dont really know how too cook…and what I do know how to cook is only heating premade items.” I sure did not know how to cook well, so to do anything seemed like it would take so long. And I never had anything that they asked for in the house so I had to go to the store and get EVERYTHING so it was so many steps. Blogs like this and the food network (along with some cooking classes and a local place) have helped me as I really would like to have my own food revolution. THis blog has been a huge help! Thanks.

  • 12 rose // May 18, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Chiming in too – this clearly struck a nerve! I totally agree with Tina that a lot of it is a question of priorities, but at the end of the day, casting judgment/blaming parents for choosing shortcuts is just counterproductive, if the goal is to get more folks eating as a family. I’m a single mom of a toddler and work full time. I used to love cooking for myself, but right now, my biggest struggle is trying to stay motivated to cook for the 2 of us, when my son won’t eat what I make half the time. I try to just let go and channel Ellen Sattyr, but it’s demoralizing. The best strategy I’ve found is planning and more planning, thereby reducing the number of decisions I have to make at 5:30 staring at the fridge while my son clamors for ‘”elbows pasta” yet again!

  • 13 Jennifer // May 19, 2010 at 10:05 am

    I buy real food. Expensive food. Whole Foods food! I avoid pesticides and HFCS, buy organic when possible, and cook when I can so it will last 2 days or so. But, I do have 3 children, home-school them, and run a household. I actually exercise and clean my own house. I subscribe to Food & Wine, Saveur, and Cooking Light. I love to eat good food. But, I do rely on healthy take out quite a bit and don’t feel guilty about it AT ALL! For one, it is sometimes cheaper than actually cooking the food, and then I don’t have to do the dishes. I live in Houston, TX, so I have many options for healthful eating outside our house. My family loves it when I cook, and they truly appreciate the time and effort. But let’s be honest here. We do our best with the time that we have. I don’t judge other people, unless they don’t even try.

  • 14 Deanna // May 19, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I didn’t read the article on babble yet but I am one of those commuting moms that made my own baby food. At first I used the excuse of mommy guilt for putting in the extra time but really I enjoyed it. My mom did it for me and she saw no reason why I couldn’t do it for my son. It led me to change the way I approach food for my children, my husband (he can’t let go of the diet cokes though), and me. I make every effort to cook all our meals whether it is all from scratch or semi-homemade. Ya, he has McDonald’s every once in a while or Dr. Praeger’s spinach cakes but I believe everything in moderation. With my baby daughter, I do the same (She’s never had jarred baby food.) and now she’s onto table food– basically miniscule bites of everything we eat. With her we also joined an organic/local farms food delivery service this year. While some of the root vegetables seemed intimidating at first, I learned how to cook them and now have go-to dishes in a pinch (rutabaga au gratin, anyone?). I find time to prep, steam, cook what I can, or whatever might be needed the night before, the morning of, or even while my kids are in the kitchen with me (they’re under 3.) It also helps that I like to do it. I never understood the Lean Cuisine-thing but that’s just me. Like my approach to giving parenting advice, do what works best for you. And cooking and baking 75% of our meals and snacks works for me. I’m tired but very happy– just like I tell myself when I hear my teething baby at 3:30 in the morning.

  • 15 Hannah // May 20, 2010 at 2:20 am

    I find this debate interesting and I’m not even a parent yet.
    My mum was a housewife and was able to provide a home-cooked meal on the table for me and my brother every night of the week. I’m grateful for this and while I hope to continue the ritual of sitting down to eat as together as much as possible when I have a family – I’m not naive enough to think i’ll have the time or energy to achieve this all the time (as much as I’d like to) as I don’t plan to be a stay-at-home mum like mine was.
    I honestly don’t get this guys reasoning at all –
    “Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. ”
    What?! If we’re reading the same magazines and watching the same shows, they’re offering quick and healthy solutions to encourage people to cook rather than reach for ready meals and convenience foods.
    And “Quick, fast, and easy isn’t the point. Good is the point.” Well surely good can be incorporated into quick and fast too, thanks to shows, mags and food blogs like this.

  • 16 Kate // May 23, 2010 at 12:49 am

    Thanks for the interesting link and thoughtful commentary. I think the author of the HuffPo rant has much of value to say and yet is oversimplifying; there have been many changes in our society over the last 50 years that have, in fact, legitimately changed the family’s approach to mealtime–more families in which two parents work, longer workdays, expanding of women’s roles and responsibilities outside the home, and perhaps most important, a general societal devaluing of the domestic arts .. . .At the same time, I firmly believe that knowing how to cook a meal is part of knowing how to care for yourself: it’s fundamentally important! I prepare most everything my three children and husband eat, but I do so at the expense of other things. As the HuffPo writer says, I am prioritizing cooking (and frankly, that’s because I enjoy it!) but often, my house is messier than I’d like, my laundry is over my head, and I am behind in correspondence and general errands. Sometimes, in truth, I am envious of people who don’t have the commitment to cooking that I do.

  • 17 pervasive development disorder // Jan 23, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    this post is comparatively superlative even by your writing standards.it would have been a real gem if you would have just put more of your personal opinion and views in the post.

  • 18 Zelda // Apr 3, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for the link to Ruhlman’s article, it was an interesting read. Whilst his criticism of Jamie Oliver was, IMHO, unfair and misdirected, he does make a valid point about choices and priorities, and the role that the food industry/media plays in all of this. His observation that the allure of extra time has become a major selling point is astute; as ever, the promise of greater choice and limitless possibilities (all that extra time) is irresistible. You rightly identify the tension between expectations and individual freedom to choose – therein lies the problem for modern families.

  • 19 Zelda // Apr 3, 2013 at 8:41 am

    On reflection, I really take issue with Ruhlman’s attack on Jamie Oliver. One of the reasons people reach for convenience, pre-packaged and fast foods is because they lack the skills and wherewithal to prepare a nutritious meal from scratch, a situation that Jamie has long been committed to rectifying, starting with his school dinners campaign a decade ago. He singlehandedly shamed the British government into putting children’s nutrition on the agenda, and if it weren’t for him, we would probably not even be having this discussion today.

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