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Family dinners? Maybe not

Magazines, TV and other media urge families to return to the kitchen, stressing the importance of home-cooked meals and family dinners to health and well-being. But new research from N.C. State University shows that home cooking and family meals place significant stresses on many families — and are simply impossible for others.
“We wanted to understand the relationship between this ideal that is presented in popular culture and the realities that people live with when it comes to feeding their children,” says Dr. Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology at NCSU.
“We found that middle-class, working-class, and poor families faced some similar challenges,” says Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at NCSU. “For example, mothers from all backgrounds reported difficulty in finding time to prepare meals that everyone in the family would be willing to eat.”
In addition, middle-class mothers reported being torn between their desire to spend quality time with their children and the expectation they need to provide the children a home-cooked meal.
But, while all families reported financial considerations as a factor in meal planning, finances affected family decisions in very different ways.
For example, middle-class mothers were concerned they weren’t able to give kids the best possible meals because they couldn’t afford to buy organic foods.
Poor families faced more severe restrictions. Their financial limitations made it more difficult to afford fresh produce, find transportation to grocery stories, or have access to sharp knives, stoves, or pots and pans.
“Poor mothers also skipped meals and stood in long lines at non-profit food pantries to provide food for their children,” Bowen says.
“We as a society need to develop creative solutions to support families and help share the work of providing kids with healthy meals.”
“There are a lot of ways we could do this, from community kitchens where families work together to arranging to-go meals from schools,” Elliott says. “There is no one answer. But we hope this work inspires people to start thinking outside the family kitchen about broader things we as a society can do when it comes to food and health.”

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