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Femivores, the food elite and the kitchen

Femivores are neither eaten by nor eat females. They are apparently a new fashion for women who want to opt out of the rat race and to kiss goodbye to the glass ceiling that, as yet, remains a male controlled architectural design. This is how Peggy Orenstein described this new movement in the new York Times, in 2010[1]: ”Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavourful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?”. And what could be more elitist? I recall two other irritating food elitists who somehow I’ve failed to purge from my memory (maybe there is an evolutionary need to retain the intellectually threatening?). One was a dietitian in a diabetic clinic over 20 years ago who I heard recommend to a patient to eat a salad based in adzuki beans every day. The other was a forgettable author who extolled the wonders of the wild herbs she harvested as she cycled the rural byways of the Davis campus in northern California. You might ask what planet these people live on? But there is a creeping middle class elitist push on food and health resulting in quite unrealistic targets being set for healthy eating. They may not quite reside on the looney food planet but they have tendencies in that direction and are influential journalists, bloggers and celebrity chefs. They espouse an ideal scenario of home-prepared healthy meals, made with fresh ingredients and eaten as a family unit at the table without the TV or digital distractions. The reality is far from that and the sooner policy makers get a grip on reality and tell the food police to go take a hike, the better for all of us. So let’s look at some published data.

The first study I’d like to consider is a study from the heart of sociology that used  the tools of anthropological research in following families with varying income levels for several weeks simply to understand their approach to home cooking and family meals[2]. This is one example of life at the lower rungs of the economic ladder:
“Wanda and her husband Marquan, working-class black parents of two young girls, were constantly pressed for time. Both were employed by the same fast food chain, but in different rural locations 45 minutes apart. They depended on Wanda’s mother, who lived 30 minutes away, for childcare. During the five weeks we spent with them, their car was broken down and since they did not have enough money to repair it, they relied on a complex network of friends and family members for rides. Their lives were further complicated by the fact that they didn’t know their weekly schedules—what hours, shifts, or even days they would be working—until they were posted, sometimes only the night before. Once they learned their shifts, they scrambled to figure out transportation and childcare arrangements”. Two big factors mitigate against family meals: time overall, synchronised time, money and facilities. Oh, and guess what? Wanda hates to cook – planning what to cook is her nightmare.

This is the authors’ overall conclusion:
“The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring. Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the front- line in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held. Our conversations with mothers of young children show us that this emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women”.

The second study is from the UK and is based on in-depth studies of 40 families. Whilst there was universal agreement among the subjects in the study, that family meals were important, the reality was quite different[3]. The authors point out: “However, a desire to eat together did not mean this happened. Under a third of the families (12/40) managed to eat together most weekdays, while the same number  (12/40) managed no family meals on weekdays. Sixteen families managed meals on some days without both parents present, a pattern we refer to as modified family meals.” The authors now go on to discuss the latter group: The largest group of families (16/40) did not usually achieve the necessary synchronicity to realise family meals during the working week. For these households, everyone in the household eating together took place only on some days of the working week. At other times the family meal was modified. This happened for a number of reasons: on account of fathers arriving home from work after the children had gone to bed; the timing of children’s activities; the children’s care regimes and whether they ate in childcare; and because of the need to young children to eat early. Another source of asynchronicity (though not in the cases in this analysis) relates to children living part of the week with their fathers and hence eating with different parents on different days of the week”.

The following summarise reasons why family meals are hard to plan in today’s world
Þ   Fathers and mothers having asynchronous times of leaving home and getting home from work
Þ   Not all children’s extra-curricular activity (e.g. sports, drama, gymnastics, sleep-overs, etc.) are synchronised and younger children cannot hold off their appetite until an older child comes home
Þ   Even with no challenges from a-synchronised extra-curricular activity, younger children are often fed earlier than older children to allow them to go to bed earlier. Indeed, difference in meal practices in child care facilities can lead to conflicting degrees of appetite among children
Þ    Because of long commutes, early rising is common and children frequently go to bed before their parents eat and often, parents need this time together.
Þ   Not everyone like the same food as most parents know and that is yet another challenge to the ideal family meal

A third study uses the The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) in which over 15,000 describe their time use over a 24 hour period[4]. The study focused on working mothers (comparing them to non-working mothers) and found that they spent less time grocery shopping and less time cooking with a greater probability of purchasing prepared foods.  They also found  that working mothers are less likely to eat with their children and to spend less time in child-care or supervision. Another study using the same data set, found that among households with no children, 63% spent 2 or more hours in the preparation and cooking of foods each day. In contrast, for households with 2 or more children, that figure fell to just 22%[5].

All in all, the image of family life and  family dining which is espoused by the high priests of public health nutrition, bears no relation to the reality. Public health nutrition advice should first proceed with qualitative and quantitative sociological research into family life and family dining. Only then will we have the basis on which we can vigorously pursue the promotion of a greater reliance on home cooking and  the greater prevalence of families dining together. But bear in mind that the present failure in this area is an absolute outcome of the way society is organised. If you don’t fix the latter, can you fix the former????

But let’s end with the Pope of public health nutrition, Michael Pollan[6]. In a lengthy article in the New York Times, Pollan recalls his mother’s cooking and bemoans the fact that Americans will spend more than twice as much time watching food chefs prepare meals as they do themselves in practice. And so he appeals for a return to the kitchen, ignoring the deep bed-rock of data which explains why family meals are such a challenge to ordinary folk. Specifically, he writes:  “You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” So MIchael, forget the supermarket muesli and have yourself some fried eggs for breakfast. But no Tabasco sauce please!!!!

[2] Bowen S, Elliott S and Brenton J. (2014) Contexts, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 20-25. ISSN 1536-5042,
[3] Brannen J, O'Connell R & Mooney A. (2014) Families, meals and synchronicity: eating together in British dual earner families; Community, Work & Family, 16:4,417-434,

[4] Maternal Employment and Childhood Obesity: A Search for Mechanisms in Time Use Data John Cawley and Feng Liu, NBER Working Paper No. 13600, November 2007, JEL No. I12,J13,J22
[5] Monsivais P, Aggarwal A, Drewnowski A, Time Spent on Home Food Preparation and Indicators of Healthy Eating. Am J Prev Med 2014;47(6):796–802) & 2014
[6] Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch By Michael Pollan The New York Times Magazine, August 2, 2009


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