Ingalls-Style Family Dinner

Question for you: Have you spent your entire tenure as a parent attempting to recreate the cozy, happy life of Charles, Caroline, Laura, Mary, and Carrie Ingalls? Their togetherness, their resourcefulness, their graciousness — their family dinners followed by Pa’s raucous fiddling?! (Please don’t forward me the New Yorker profile of Laura’s libertarian daughter, Rose, who, we know now, did most of the Little House writing for her mom, and also added the rosy hue to her family’s story in the name of commercial romanticism.) I’ve been reading one or another of the seven books in the series to my girls for the last three years and in addition to providing beautiful storytelling and can-do inspiration, they have proved to be an endless spring of teaching moments. You’re whining about getting more Silly Bandz?! For the first five years of Laura’s life the only doll she owned was a corn cob wrapped in a dishtowel! (Did I say teaching moments? I think I meant lecture moments.)

My friend Rory is convinced that if you handed any of the books to a picky eater that the paragraph-long descriptions of fried pigs tails and syrupy Johnny Cakes, maple candy and cambric tea, would cure the kid of the fussiness for good.

I was thinking of the Ingalls family when I read Michael Pollan’s recent article The Food Movement, Rising in the New York Review of Books. This line in particular:

“Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and a smaller amount of their time preparing it: a mere thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up.”

Thirty-one minutes on average including clean-up! Imagine telling the Ingalls this. How would they spend the other 11 1/2 hours of their day if this were the M.O. in the big woods of Wisconsin or the open plains of the Dakota territories? Indeed, much of what resonates for me about the Ingalls is that their entire day, every day, all year long is leading in one direction: Dinner. Not just tonight’s dinner, but the meals they will eat all year long. Best of all, everyone in the family is involved in the production of dinner. It’s a shared, common purpose. In some ways, the only purpose.

And it’s a shared common purpose that I believe still has a place — albeit a redefined place — in our industrialized, post-feminist society. One of the books Pollan discusses in the review is The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society by Janet A. Flammang. (It’s on order. I feel certain you’ll be hearing a lot more about it.) Pollan writes:

Flammang makes a convincing case for the centrality of food work and shared meals….A scholar of the women’s movement, she suggests that “American women are having second thoughts” about having left the kitchen. However, the answer is not for them simply to return to it, at least not alone, but rather “for everyone—men, women, and children—to go back to the kitchen, as in preindustrial days, and for the workplace to lessen its time demands on people.” Flammang points out that the historical priority of the American labor movement has been to fight for money, while the European labor movement has fought for time, which she suggests may have been the wiser choice.

The point is, we are due for a dinner mindshift that everyone must be part of. The answer to all our family dinner problems is not to be found in a 30-minute meal strategy (31-minute meal strategy?) or an arsenal of Annie’s Mac & Cheese and Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas (though there are roles for those things to play to be sure). How about this weekend we start shifting a little. How about we try to think about dinner more as a reward after a hard day of working and playing and less as a dutiful, it’s-coming-no-matter-what, final indignity. Let’s think of it as a party and as a purpose. And if at all possible, let’s get the whole family working on it together. Ingalls-style.

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Exactly! I just read Little House in the Big Woods for the first time as an adult, and I was amazed at how food-centric it was. I loved it! And immediately wanted to make maple syrup candy. I love your point of view here… thanks for this!



Thank you , thank you, thank you. You share not only my obsession with family meals but the Little House on the Prairie books. My sisters and I have read them over and over again. Even as kids we use to say that all of the food sounded so delicious in those books.
For me, I have a new steak in the ground today. I am going to start reading the books to my girls this summer! And I am going to try to remember back to the loveliness of those books as we all get our hands dirty making dinner tonight!!!!


I read your blog often and enjoy the recipes and cookbook ideas. However, I believe these “bigger issue” topics are my favorite. Thanks for having the guts to post them.


Heather I was going to point out the very same thing on Mike’s post. I am still giggling over the corn doll he made for his daughter, absolutely adorable and kind of sad at the same time.

Never read the books (I am so ashamed!) but I like the idea of making dinner a reward rather than a duty. Speaking of which… duty calls!


do you remember in Farmer Boy when the parents go away for a week and the kids eat the entire winter’s ration of sugar? or was it maple syrup? makes you feel less hysterical about sweets, too. there was always fresh pie for dessert!


Sal – YES! I forget — was it during that same trip away that Almanzo’s pig’s teeth got stuck together from eating a vat of something sticky?


yes, that was it – which makes me think it was maple sugar or syrup … jane had nightmares about the pig’s teeth!


One of my favorite dinner moments in the Little House series is when Pa shoots the blackbirds that have been ravaging their corn, and Ma turns them into a delicious pie! I think Pa says, “Caroline, you beat all!” And it’s one of the few moments (the only moment?) when Caroline allows herself to be proud of something she has done. I almost always think of her when I start the washing machine or dishwasher.

Making dinner is still (usually) a joy for me, but my daughter is only 21 months. I’m already trying to steel myself for the years of multiple kids and multiple soccer games and goodness knows what else.


That’s all good and true, but the reality is that people really do have less time now than they have in a while. In my case at least – I’m going back to work after maternity leave. I have to work and have a 45 minute commute. I don’t get home til about 6:00 which means that I have about 2 hours to spend with my 2 year old daughter and 4 month old infant before they go to bed. How much of that time do I want to be devoted to prepping and cleaning? I’m guessing that’s where the 30 minute dinner came from…

I don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing that food as a percentage of income is less (things could just be cheaper) or that time devoted to it is less.

It’s sad that despite increases in productivity and efficiency, the full-time work week is still 40+ hours and many families now need two incomes. That’s where the real mind shift needs to take place. That is where there is something very wrong with this country.


Teresa – I agree completely. Since I now have a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old I tend to forget (shame on me) how crazy those first few years of working and parenting and cooking can be. But back then Family Dinner wasn’t even on the radar (in “How to Have Family Dinner” I even say it’s not worth it to try until your kids are older let alone an all-day Ingalls-esque family affair. However, even though I didn’t know it then, I was laying the groundwork for family dinner — just like you are — by making sure I had a solid chunk of time for them when I got home from work. (For me, that book “The 7:00 Bedtime” was Public Enemy No. 1.) The fact that you have that two-hour window is going to be a godsend later on…since your kids will be used to eating a bit later which will take a little of the
“Mom-I’m-hungry-NOW” pressure off when you walk in the door after work. And re: cheaper food, I encourage you to read the entire Pollan article if you get a chance. While discussing Eric Schlosser’s seminal “Fast Food Nation” he discusses how, in the past few decades, food corporations have created “a kind of nonvirtuous circle” driving down both wages and the quality of food. He goes on to write “The advent of fast food (and cheap food in general) has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America.” Thanks for writing.

beth - total mom haircut

Excellent post and very well-said. I know I need to re-read these books. I’ve been waiting for my boys to get just slightly older for them, but maybe I need to just read them myself:)


i know i’m getting to the party late, but also, in Farmer Boy (which i think, more than any other of the books, is about food, food, and more food. Even his prize pumpkin guzzles milk!) the four Wilder children weren’t allowed to talk. Or were only allowed to speak when spoken to. Which afforded Almonzo all that time for his reveries about food–and seconds, right? i remember there was some tension about him wanting seconds and being worried there wouldn’t be any.

and, if the books can cure picky eating, The Long Winter in particular could cure chore-cheating or garden-variety goldbricking. How they entire family spent all their days twisting that hay so they would have something to burn and heat the house!


I am so enjoying your blog – for the writing and of course the food. It was this post though that really touched me – growing up in Australia how I loved reading about the lives of those who lived in that Little House… we are really working on family dinner here but it’s hard with husbands who work late and kids who eat early. I wouldn’t want to be chopping and growing and harvesting for 14 hours a day but there has to be balance even in modern time pressed family life. We can try…


Love your website. I was going to mention Farmer Boy, but I see several others already have. It’s our favorite here (could be because I have three little boys).
I’m fascinated by the comparison of what European workers fought for vs what we did. Time vs money. Have you read I Don’t Know How She Does It? A novel about a working mom, but the best part for me was how well she illustrated the sort of “throwing $ around” that can come out of mommy-guilt as well as self-deprivation…that is really TIME deprivation, but rather than asking for or getting more time, we get more shoes.

jamie arnett

I dont think things have changed all that much..i am a housewife with 7 kids, and i spend a LOT of time in the kitchen. my husband works 6 days a week, which leaves the food shopping and preparation to me. i delegate things like potato peeling, onion chopping, green bean stringing to the kids though.


I bought and read DALS cookbook last week, and since then, have been scouring the archives of the website for all the gems I missed.

This might be my favorite entry yet. Yes! It’s not the final duty, it’s the crown joy.