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The Audacity of a Mother Who Hates Making Dinner

Mother and writer Virginia Heffernan recently dared to ask the question What If You just Hate Making Dinner? Nostalgic for pizza delivery and frozen dinners, Heffernan finds “mother cookbooks” like 100 Days of Real Food, The Family Cooks, and Dinner: A Love Story (at best) discouraging and (at worst) condescending. She’s blunt about what she calls “my bold association of foodism with rank misogyny.”

A mother who hates making dinner? Food writer Michael Ruhlman was practically apoplectic — calling Heffernan “shrill,” “sad” and “self-unaware.” He seemed unable to comprehend the problem. Is this woman – gasp – single? Doesn’t she work from home? What’s her excuse? According to Ruhlman, children of single mothers and hapless home chefs face a similarly dim future: “If you don’t [cook at least one meal a week], will the kids turn to a life of crime? Not any more than they’ll be affected by a father who’s never around. It happens. Life is hard.”

fork+ knife+ dinner is served
image via flickr user Boudewijn Berends

Much like food advocate Michael Pollan, Ruhlman fails to grasp (or refuses to consider) what it’s like to be a working mother. But he will offer you his chicken schnitzel recipe, “photographed by the woman of the household, at my request—I hope not a sexist one.” Silly women. Complaining about dinners! What’s next — complaints about consensual photography?

Jenny Rosenstrach, author of Dinner: A Love Story (the blog and cookbook of the same name), is filled with Heffernan-fury that’s best saved for her private burn book. But she did insist that her blog readers keep her on task: “if my tone here ever makes anyone feel anxious or guilty or less-than, if I ever sound condescending, then I’m failing in what I’m trying to accomplish, and you guys need to let me know about it.” I’m sure devoted food blog readers will be lining up to confess their inadequacies in short order.

I myself quite like cooking, actually, but if I think about it as one event in the vast Olympics of perfect parenting, I see Heffernan’s point. Have you mastered canning? Do you sew your own clothes? Have you learned to shlep your entire family and a week’s worth of groceries on a bicycle? You might find some of these pursuits rewarding, but taken as a whole it’s all you can do not to suffocate under the weight of so very many perfectly constructed Pinterest boards.

fried chicken
image via flickr user

Food is different, too, because not much else inspires this level of obsession. Nothing sends a mom into a blind rage quicker than some undocumented high fructose corn syrup. Ruhlman might ponder what kind of future awaits children raised without regular home-cooked meals, but what about the anxiety we instill when we scrutinize our diets to such an extreme degree?

Women may be the driving force in this renaissance of domesticity — huge numbers of women are food bloggers, small food business owners or folks who just plain like to cook — but it’s also women who feel the burden.  Food writers like Ruhlman or Rosenstrach who counter that men can do their part too are missing Heffernan’s point. The father who hates cooking dinner won’t be called “shrill” or have his parental fitness questioned if he confesses that sometimes he hates cooking dinner.

Featured image by flick user JFXie 



Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. Excellent article! My mom always cooked a meal every night when I was a kid–even though she worked full time. And I never helped out (I was so rotten). But I see now that she stresses out about dinner and doesn’t seem to enjoy cooking that much–and the only reason she did it was because she hates leftovers.

    In my house, I would eventually like to reach a point where we can sit down and have dinner together, but my husband doesn’t get home until 6:30, and my daughter goes to bed at 7. So, her and I eat dinner together (which means, she eats some healthy toddler food and I take a few nibbles from that, because I’m too tired to make myself a full meal) and I eat a regular dinner after she goes to bed. I used to enjoy cooking–now I just see it as “one more thing” that I need to do and when I think about all the effort, I lose my appetite.

    1. My mom was the same way — she worked full-time and we always sat down to dinner. She did enjoy cooking, but it’s still stressful to manage all of that when you’re working. My dad did cook from time to time too.

      It’s difficult to coordinate dinner with a toddler and a work schedule. I remember being very stressed out about that but soon she’ll be staying up later!

  2. I comment around our house (often and loudly) that if I’d known making meals EVERY DAY was a part of the deal, I would have re-thought this whole wife and mother contract. (“Didn’t I feed you yesterday? Come on!”)

    Though in fact Dr. Skull makes most of the dinners we actually eat.

    But I have to pack the school lunches. Every day. Every day another school lunch. It’s like Sisyphyus and his fucking rock, I swear.

    1. Have you seen the blogs where people actually make their kid’s lunches look pretty? Can you imagine having time/effort enough to be like, “I’m going to make your egg look like a star today!”

  3. Thank you!! I put a home cooked meal on the table the vast majority of nights (seriously, one of my kids can’t eat most processed foods without some serious health consequences, so I have to do this), and I still empathize and largely agree with Heffernan. Frankly, home cooking is NOT the most important thing you can do for your kid. I’m also a hobby knitter, and I see it as ridiculous as saying that making your kids’ clothes is the most important thing you can do for your child.

    Ruhlman’s response frankly infuriates me. It infuriates me because he assumes you’re wasting that time, that everything can be fixed with a little more preparation. I teach people who have kind of sketchy access to electricity, who do not have their own vehicles so are entirely using public transport, etc. That “preparing ahead of time” assumes that you had the time to shop for foods that are not all shelf-stable and a way to keep them on hand safely, that the free time you do have is not time your children are sleeping at night and where you can’t legally leave them alone because they’re too young, even that you might have the money to have procured a decent set of knives. Maybe it’s exposure to these folks and maybe it’s the fact that I wake up, make breakfast and lunches for my family, work all day, come home to make dinner for my family while helping the children navigate homework and the like, put the kids to bed, and then often end up working from home well into the night. That’s what a typical day is like when my husband is out of town, and I’m someone who has a lot of advantages in life. I like cooking, but if I didn’t, well, no recipe is going to help me like that situation. I’d think it might be better to be able to have some time to interact with my children without feeling obligated to do something that is difficult for me and/or that I hate to do, particularly if said children are going to be underfoot the whole time with their other demands.

    Take some of the pressure off people, take away the guilt, and they might enjoy cooking more.

  4. I wanted to highlight this from the Slate article:

    The women interviewed faced not just children but grown adults who are whiny, picky, and ungrateful for their efforts. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the researchers write.

    Sounds awesome!

    I’ve noticed people grossly underestimate prep and cleanup, and they assume everyone is a good cook. Most ‘simple’ scratch dinners* will need at least an hour before you’re even cooking, and a sink full of dishes before a single bite is taken.

    *I’m using the fish, spinach, and mashed potato model here as an average.

  5. As more of a response to Micheal R.’s article, you never see the comment where the kids are encouraged to cook and take care of themselves. At a pretty young age we were taught to help out with dinners and as we got older made the dinners ourselves and this was well before the teenage years. My mom and dad did provide us with food. We were told to be apart of the family and make up dinner and we took turns. My mom still made dinners the most, but it wasn’t the situation that so many other women find themselves in. Putting something in the oven and peeling a potato is something kids, and other family members can and should do too. Just my opinion. Anyways, I liked the article. I like candidness of it.

    1. Ideally, everyone participates and that includes the kids. It’s just that in practice that’s often yet another task that falls to the mother. Not always though. Maybe the mom who hates cooking will feel free enough to turn things over to her kids and not be afraid to try the results (something I personally struggle with!).

    2. It takes an act of congress to get my kids to help out around the house. I feel like that’s pretty normal for children and teens, not because we’re incompetent parents or they’re bad kids.
      There are also six different people coming home between 2p.m. and 10p.m., some hungry, some already ate, some just want pb&j or ramen, regardless of what’s available. It all seems pretty par for the course, but maybe we’re just a bush-league family?

      1. The differences in schedules can be a killer. My son would actually like to cook more, and I’ve had a really hard time accepting the messiness of it. My daughter is already asking to cook too. I really need to let them do more. Maybe I can just force them to wear gloves. And a mask. Or wrap them entirely in saran wrap.

        1. Mine wanted to cook up until they were old enough to do it as a regular part of living and not just as a fun activity. My son was so proud when he learned to make brownies – from a box, with a can of Dr. Pepper instead of eggs and oil.
          I’m also a micromanager and terrible tutor in the kitchen.

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