Study: That home-cooked family dinner might be bad for your mental health


It might be time to stop idealizing home-cooked meals. The common social norm teaches us that a well-balanced dinner will improve healthy family relationships. And health experts say that home-cooked meals can prevent heart disease and obesity. However, a new study found that the process of creating a home-cooked meal might actually hurt your health.

A study conducted by researchers from North Carolina University suggests that the pressure and stress that are put on women when preparing a home-cooked meal may not be worth its positive side effects.

Sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton interviewed 150 mothers of all ages, races and ethnicities, and spent over 250 hours analyzing 12 families. All the mothers believed that a home-cooked meal is a "hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen." However, they lacked the time and money, which caused the women stress.

The researchers found that "time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials." 

Low-income mothers worked erratic work schedules, which prevented them from serving a typical American family meal at a decent time. Some mothers could not afford healthy, fresh produce to provide a nutritious meal. And many women could not afford pot, pans, and other basic kitchen tools.

Even working mothers who got home at a decent time found it hard to get a healthy dinner ready by evening. Managing their children's needs after working late or catching up on household chores while cooking was overwhelming.

Once a meal is cooked, mothers then have to convince their picky family members to eat it. "We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn't complain about the food they were served," the researchers write. The study found that husbands and boyfriends were just as picky as the children. Mothers who had the money to incorporate more diverse meals into their family's diet did not stray from traditional recipes to avoid complaints.

Some people find cooking relaxing and joyful, but many people view preparing a home-cooked meal as a chore. Should we skip the headache and order in? The researchers conclude that we should change the way we feel about cooking so that we don't sacrifice our mental health for our nutritional health. And more importantly, we should change the dialogue surrounding home-cooked meals, making it the responsibility of both men and women.

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