In an era of processed foods, wholesome home cooking is more important than ever, and everyone can share in the responsibility!
This Sunday, millions of women will be served breakfast in bed, made by childish hands. Mother’s Day is a rare occasion when children make food for their mothers rather than the other way around. The toast may be burned and there may be crumbs in the sheets for days afterward, but it is the thought that counts. The meals of Mother’s Day are a tiny sliver of payback, a recognition that taking on the responsibility of feeding another human being is hard, important work that deserves to be celebrated.
In the modern world, we seem to have forgotten that food isn’t just about appetite; it is also about nurture. The tastes we form as children will often stay with us all our lives, which makes those early meals all the more vital. But just because the job of feeding children is crucial doesn’t mean that mothers have to be the only ones shouldering the burden.
For too long, women have been fed the idea that the task of feeding children is all on them. This does not always work out well, for either mother or child. In her 1973 book “Eating Disorders,” Dr. Hilde Bruch writes that she once had a middle-aged patient who had suffered a heart attack and desperately wanted to lose weight. His problem, he told Dr. Bruch, was that every time he tried to eat less, he thought of his mother and felt guilty: He remembered how, when he was a child, she would stand over him saying “Eat, eat or I will die.” She had grown up in Europe, scarred by war and hunger, and she desperately needed to see her child eat to reassure herself that the horrors were past.
Like many of us, this woman felt that the task of feeding her child was her singular burden. Feeding children can be a joy, but it can also be too big a psychic load for one person to bear—not least because the most important thing a child needs at mealtimes is an atmosphere of freedom in which to eat.
It is still too easy for the mother to become the only one who plans the meals, shops for ingredients, schleps them home, lovingly cooks them and watches anxiously for a child’s reaction to his or her first taste of something new. No wonder many families in the modern world opt for convenience foods instead. As the food writer Deb Perelman has observed, “There are many good reasons to never cook at home.” Only now that it is ceasing to be the norm for mothers to stand laboriously stirring a pot can we appreciate just how much we owe to the heroically thankless, everyday cooking of our own mothers. (“When it comes to food,” observed the food writer Michael Pollan, “culture is really just a fancy word for Mom.”)
Around the world, there has been a radical worsening in children’s diets in recent years, along with a rise in childhood obesity and infant tooth decay. This has occurred alongside a decline in home cooking, as women increasingly work outside the home. Today, the main educator of a child’s palate may no longer be a parent but a multinational food corporation.
Where children around the world used to eat varied diets based on their own local cuisine—from bean stews in Brazil to the potage bonne femme of France—now their diets are converging on a single palate of sweet-salty-fatty packaged foods. You wouldn’t expect a child in Portugal and a child in China to consume the same after-school snack. But a study conducted from 2011 to 2013, based on interviews with more than 7,000 9- to 11-year-olds in 12 countries, found that similar patterns of eating are emerging across the world. Children now tend to consume near-identical packaged cookies and cereal bars, branded snacks, candies and crackers. The worst of it is that many of these unwholesome and sugary packaged goods are cynically marketed as “healthy,” kid-friendly or pediatrician-approved.
The rise of unwholesome children’s foods is sometimes interpreted to mean that mothers have failed in their duty as feeders. But mothers aren’t the ones who devised the recipes for those boxes of frosted flakes and sugary yogurts. The real lesson here is that reclaiming “mother’s food” is everyone’s responsibility, if we want to see future generations grow up without the health problems of our own.
Feeding, as much as eating, is a skill, with which most of us could use a little help.
A mother’s cooking is a wonderful and powerful thing, but it doesn’t have to be done by mothers alone. In most societies, whether human or animal, the act of feeding has been something collective and collaborative rather than individual. You know that mother bird ferrying nutritious worms to the nest? She has back-up. When a nest of robin eggs hatches, the father robin as well as the mother takes on the job of feeding. Like her, he flies off to fetch worms, dropping them tenderly into the open beaks. The father and mother bird work together to guard the nest as their vulnerable offspring eat.
We often assume that the act of feeding a child comes naturally to a mother, thanks to some kind of innate feminine talent, but this isn’t so. Among primates such as monkeys, infants are often fed and groomed by females who are not their mothers, in order to teach mothers how to do a better job. Feeding, as much as eating, is a skill, with which most of us could use a little help.
Leeds recently became the first city in the U.K. to bring down the rate of childhood obesity, from 9.4% to 8.8%, with the most marked changes among families living in deprived areas. The change was brought about by a program that teaches parents how to feed their children in a more “authoritative way,” offering them boundaries and structured choices at mealtimes. Mothers were encouraged to stop asking children open-ended questions such as “What would you like to eat?” Instead, they were gently trained to offer structured options, such as “Would you like broccoli or carrots?” One mother, who joined the scheme when her oldest daughter was 2, reported that thanks to the techniques she learned, her children were now eating vegetables such as beetroot and sweet potato.
The idea that feeding children well might take more than one person is hardly news to same-sex households, who are remaking the rulebook on who cleans, who cooks and who looks after children. In these homes, there is often no assumption that just one person has a duty to be the feeder. Yet there is still pressure on mothers in heterosexual relationships to be the ones who figure out the myriad snacks, drinks and meals in a child’s day.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that women get pigeonholed as natural feeders, given the fierce biological and historical associations between women and food.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that women get pigeonholed as natural feeders, given the fierce biological and historical associations between women and food. During gestation and breast-feeding, the nourishment of mother and child are intimately related. Even if you were placed for adoption at birth and never once met your own mother, you will still have, at some subconscious level, ideas about food that were shaped by what she ate. When pregnant women eat a lot of garlic, their amniotic fluid will have a garlicky tinge which transmits itself to the fetus. Experiments by scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia show that when pregnant women consumed a great deal of carrot juice in the last trimester, they had babies who preferred the taste of carrot-flavored cereal.
Pregnant women can feel under terrible pressure to eat the “right” thing. “Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, ‘Is this the best bite I can give my baby?’” write the authors of the best-selling pregnancy book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Historically, mothers were asked to make their own appetites completely subservient to the needs of their children. One 19th-century British advice book told them exactly what foods to select while pregnant: “Let her eat quinces of marmalade to strengthen her child, sweet almonds, honey and full ripe grapes.” Thankfully, women are no longer expected to see themselves purely as vessels for a child. Yet it is still remarkably common to encounter the view that a mother alone is responsible for the job of feeding.
There are encouraging signs that a shift is happening, at least for some families. The great, hopeful, untold story of modern food is the rise in domestic cooking by men. A 2013 study in Nutrition Journal found that in 1965 around 92.3% of women in the U.S. cooked regularly, while only 67.7% did in 2007-8.
But millions of men whose fathers never picked up a wooden spoon are now making cooking a part of their lives—and not just in the once-a-year performance of grilling meat for a barbecue. The same study showed that in 1965, only 29% of American men made cooking a regular part of their lives, whereas by 2008 42% did. The amount of time a male American cook spends in the kitchen has also increased, from 37 minutes a day in 1965 to 45 minutes in 2008. In this world of junk food and stress, we could all benefit from the nurturing power of more mother’s cooking in our lives. But that doesn’t mean that mothers always have to be the ones doing it.
A very Happy Mother's Day to all celebrating tomorrow!
By Bee Wilson