Vox recently interviewed sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott about their new book, “Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.” In a nutshell, they argue that personal responsibility just isn’t getting families to eat more healthy meals, and that government isn’t doing enough to address this “crisis in American kitchens.”
They’re right about one thing: Americans have unattainable food goals. They’ve gotten the impression from home-cook blogs and family sitcoms that eating balanced meals from scratch every night at the dinner table is what they should be doing, and by this standard, almost all of us are falling miserably short. As Elliott observed, this high standard generates a sense of shame and judgment.
It’s a shame these sociologists, too, are using this unreachable standard as an excuse to push big government programs, even when they admit it’s not practical. It’s laughable that Bowen suggests trying HelloFresh and pre-made meals from Whole Foods as healthy steps. Surely they know that the poor and middle-class families they studied for their book can’t afford such high-end solutions in the long term?
Of course they do. Out of one side of their mouths they decry the idealism, but from the other side they are engaging in exactly the kind of standard-setting that leads people to believe they are helpless to change their own situations, and therefore need government to step in and make the changes for them.
But you don’t need another government program. You don’t need a swift kick in the rear from commentators like me, either, and you don’t need yet another listicle telling you to chop your vegetables on Monday to make meal-prep easier the rest of the week (although those listicles can be quite helpful). You need to shift your frame of mind and unlearn your helplessness. Here are some practical ways to do that.
1. Accept Where You’re At
Accept that it’s okay to not cook from scratch every night. We all have to balance meal quality with other obligations, like helping kids with homework or driving them to youth group or soccer practice.
If the vast majority of your meals are premade, odds are your cooking skills aren’t on point. You may not even own a whisk. That’s okay! Accept the fact that when the food hits the plate during the first few weeks or months, the result isn’t going to be something you could feed Gordon Ramsay with a straight face. Cooking takes practice, just like driving, reading, riding a bike, and any other skill you’ve learned.
2. Baby Steps!
We live in the 21st century, and the internet offers a wealth of free resources to learn how to cook. YouTube is especially great for this. Try watching Basics with Babish or find some clips from Good Eats (where I gained at least half of my cooking knowledge) or “30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray.” Just 5 or 10 minutes of learning a day can vastly improve your knowledge base and make you feel more confident in the kitchen.
There is no shame in learning how to do something later in life that some people consider “easy” and have been doing for decades. Avoid the home-cooking blogs if you find them overwhelming (for Pete’s sake, we don’t need 700 words and a dozen pictures of your precious creation before getting to the recipe!), and opt instead for recipes recommended by friends and family or ones with high ratings and thorough instructions on AllRecipes.com or a similar site.
Buy a whisk during your next shopping trip. Buy some spatulas and big plastic mixing bowls at the dollar store. Ask a budget-conscious friend to help you get started on gathering staples to stock your pantry with.
If you cook a frozen lasagna but assembled your own salad to go with it, count it as a win. In fact, “semi-homemade” meals might be your go-to solution, and that’s cheaper and mostly likely better for you than takeout.
3. Don’t Compare Yourself to Anyone Else
If your friend’s friend Janessa cooks organic vegan tacos and only shops at Whole Foods, who freaking cares? You don’t have to. If Isabella from the PTA meetings only feeds her kids organic mac and cheese and you feed them the stuff from the $1 blue box, who cares? Is her kid going to end up so much farther ahead in life because he ate Annie’s instead of Kraft? Mix in some steamed broccoli from the frozen aisle and call it a victory.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and ashamed about your eating and TV-watching habits, stay off social media. The constant barrage of picture-perfect meals and parenting advice from the sanctimommies is only going to make you feel worse and risk sending you in completely the opposite direction out of spite, toward the “bad moms” counterculture.
4. Steer Clear of the ‘Bad Moms’
Yes, you know the ones I’m talking about. The ones who post all those snarky memes about being borderline negligent and hating motherhood? The ones who leave French fries on the bottom of the car for months as if they’re leaning in to their worst tendencies just to spite the Instagram SAHMs? (We all have one or two French fries stuck between the seat and the console, but come on.)
Embracing that mentality might feel good in the short term, but in the long term it will entrench bad habits you don’t really want to pass on to your kids, as well as normalize the hemorrhaging of cash at the drive-thru. It seems easier to believe you’re no better than your current behavior, but it’s a lazy lie that will trap you in helplessness. Looking back in 20 years and realizing you’ve hardly learned a thing is much more depressing than pressing forward in the present.
5. Change One Thing at a Time
Changing a bunch of things at once is impossible, especially when you consider it can take more than two months to break a single habit. If you are used to eating TV dinners on the couch while watching Netflix, eat your homemade enchilada casserole on the couch while watching Netflix. Despite the laundry list of implied prohibitive circumstances from the sociologists Vox interviewed, your lack of seating around the dinner table is not an excuse to not cook. Your incomplete set of cookware is not an excuse, either (e.g., if you don’t have a whisk, make do with a fork until you can get one).
Your lack of a stove would prohibit many meals, but if you have a slow cooker or pressure cooker, you can still have quite a few options. In any case, such situations are almost always temporary (if you’re living in a motel, your problems are much bigger than not cooking from scratch).
So change one thing at a time. If it’s substituting a veggie side for bread, start there. Then maybe learn how to mash and season your own potatoes. Then teach one of your older children how to chop vegetables so you don’t have to do so much work. Then, perhaps months later, you’ll gather everyone around the dinner table for a home-cooked meal.
If we thought about everything as an all-or-nothing situation, we’d be paralyzed by anxiety. But we are blessed to live in a country where thousands of middle-ground options are available, from pre-assembled bags of stir-fry to waffle mix. Don’t let anyone tell you the government needs to intervene in your personal life for you to eat healthier and have more family time, but don’t let unrealistic Instagram imagery keep you from improving you and your family’s habits, either.
Something called the “Ikea effect” can be applied to home-cooking: You value things you’ve prepared yourself more than if you had simply bought them pre-made. Personal experience bears this out—nearly every time we’ve chosen to cook a meal at home instead of give in to the takeout temptation, we are glad we did it and enjoy our meal.
It’s getting to the point where you can make this decision without much apprehension about how it will turn out that’s more difficult. You are much more capable than you think you are, and figuring that out is going to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.