Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?

An article in The Atlantic suggests that they do:

Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?

Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children’s food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.

The article, adapted from a book-length study by a pair of UCLA researchers of “dual-earning middle-class families” in Los Angeles, describes families in which the mere fact that kids snack frequently and eat “special” meals makes it difficult for them to grasp, or parents to enforce, shared mealtimes. Oh, and guess what else? Using packaged convenience foods did not save these families time over cooking from scratch.

Although heavy reliance on convenience foods does not predict a scattering of family members at dinnertime, their individual packaging and low-skill (but not significantly less time-consuming) preparation may encourage family members to eat at different times and places, even when the whole family is at home. The expectation that individual-sized convenience foods can be heated up and eaten apart by a family member whenever or wherever was apparent late on a Sunday afternoon in the Marsden household. Thirteen-year-old Darrin asked his mom to heat up his convenience meal right away for him to eat. When his mother, Susan, countered that she wanted him to eat his “special dinner” together with the family, Darrin was bewildered.

None of this especially surprises me, but it raises some questions for me.

  1. From my own experience it’s true that “convenience” foods don’t really save much time, but cooking from scratch does require more time management. For example, getting a meal ready the night before in the slow-cooker requires forethought and planning, but is actually more convenient at the last minute than dealing with packaged foods. And if cooking from scratch doesn’t require more time, it does require more mental energy than using convenience foods, especially if you haven’t planned carefully. If I’ve had a busy and irritating day, that may be in shorter supply than time. (Although I nearly always get over it, or plan around it.)
  2. I don’t doubt there’s a negative correlation (as we research-y types like to say) between convenience foods and shared family meals, and the researchers’ argument makes a lot of sense, but is the causality only one-way? Might a lack of commitment to the family as a family, as a unit in which members share responsibilities and experiences, make it easier to accept convenience foods? Maybe the relationship is circular. Or perhaps both arise from a deeper view of the world or moral sense. The authors do note that “the preference among other adults for cooking fresh or raw ingredients may be based on a moral orientation to meals as both enjoyable and important events.”
  3. What, at bottom, is the “family dinner” about? The authors observe that “Americans cling to the ideal of family commensality as an elixir for personal and societal ills,” which seems a little dismissive and also a little instrumental. But suppose, as I believe, that it does have value: where does that value lie — in the mere proximity or in a deeper shared experience? If a family sits down together to eat disparate convenience foods, does the separateness of their experiences of eating undermine the value the “family meal” is supposed to provide? Is the “family meal” the act of consuming food in the same time and place, or is it a deeper and more complex common experience?

Read the whole thing. If nothing else, the exchange between the parents trying to pin down the nutritional value of a veggie “meatball” is hilarious.