Serving Convenience Foods for Dinner Doesn't Save Time

But commercially prepared foods do seem to undermine the invaluable family meal.

But commercially prepared foods do seem to undermine the invaluable family meal.


Between 2001 and 2004, a team of UCLA researchers tracked the lives of 32 dual-earning middle-class families living in Los Angeles. The study's findings appear in the book Fast-Forward Family, from which the following post is adapted.

Americans cling to the ideal of family commensality as an elixir for personal and societal ills (e.g., children's vulnerability to drugs, smoking, and obesity) and as de rigueur for kindling children's school success. Many parents regret that for pragmatic reasons they cannot routinely prepare and enjoy a meal together as a family. They cite busyness -- workplace obligations, children's extracurricular and school activities, and scheduling conflicts -- as occluding this opportunity. Yet the study reveals that the busy lives of family members outside the home are not the only culprit in the saga of the American family dinner. 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.


To gain some perspective on the abundance of food in the households of Los Angeles, we briefly turn to another food-loving society, namely, Italy. Italian families tend to have smaller refrigerators (with smaller freezer sections) than are found in most U.S. kitchens. Italian middle-class families typically do not have second refrigerators or freezers. It is hard to tell if refrigerator size organizes grocery shopping habits or the inverse, but Italian families characteristically purchase food more frequently (often daily) and in smaller quantities than was typical of the families we followed in Los Angeles. While neighborhood grocery stores abound and super-sized markets are becoming increasingly popular, they are usually located on the outskirts of Italian towns and are not (yet) ubiquitous. It is common for Italian families to purchase many of their everyday food items at bakeries, fruit and vegetable vendors, butcher shops, fish markets, and open markets.

In contrast, Los Angeles families manifested a different set of food shopping habits. The omnipresence of hypermarkets in Los Angeles prepared researchers to document food purchased in large quantities and packed inside large refrigerators. Despite these expectations, however, we were awed by the sheer abundance of food stockpiled in homes. Parents purchased food in massive quantities. Enormous boxes and plastic-sealed packages of items of the same kind filled kitchens and spilled over into utility rooms and garages. Enormous cases of soda, fruit drinks, and alcoholic beverages occupied floors, shelves, and the tops of refrigerators. Food items came in multiples and giant sizes -- from pancake mix and cereal to popcorn.

What was culturally striking across the households was the abundance of individual-sized packaged foods for children. For example, small packages of cookies, designed for a child's school lunch bag or afternoon snack. The individual packaging itself facilitates a child's consumption of the food item, as there is no need to take, pour, or cut a portion from a larger quantity. In addition, each package holds the child's own portion, obviating the need for napkin or plate. Some child-oriented yogurts and fruit purees, for example, can be squeezed directly into the child's mouth.

Snacks were part and parcel of refueling children after a long, hard day at school and beyond. Everyone knows, however, that eating snacks has consequences later on in the evening when dinner is ready. Consider, for example, what transpired between Susan Marsden and her eight-year- old daughter, Courtney, at dinnertime. Susan had brought home take-out food from a local restaurant for the whole family to eat, but Courtney, watching television and eating a snack, was not interested in joining them:

Susan: Hey lounge lizard.

Courtney: (Hello).

Susan: You want, um,--want something to eat?

Courtney: No. I don't like [name of restaurant].

Susan: I didn't get [name of restaurant], and what are you eating now? Goldfish again?

Courtney: (Nods)

Susan: So what do you want? Salad and a quesadilla?

Courtney: (Shakes her head) ...

Susan: Come on. (pause) What do you want to eat, I'll make you something to eat and then we're turning off the TV, Courtney.

Susan: What do you want to eat?

Courtney: I don't want anything.

Susan: You don't want, um (pause) a salad or an apple or (pause) what.

Courtney: (Shakes her head)

In this exchange, Susan started out in a lighthearted manner but soon became alarmed that her daughter was eating "Goldfish again," suggesting this snack was habitual. After volunteering to prepare for Courtney what she would like as an alternative to take-out, Courtney responded categorically, "I don't want anything," affirming this once again when her mother proposed some food options. This exchange is emblematic of the state of dinnertime for many families in the United States: children prefer to munch on a snack of their own choosing while engaged in a separate activity of their own choosing, such as watching a television program, rather than join the family around the dinner table.


Margaret Beck documented exactly what families ate for dinner. At first she was surprised that an impressive 73 percent of the weeknight dinners were "home-cooked"! That is, they were prepared by a family member at home. These home-cooked dinners did not include take-out or delivered restaurant food. Mothers (sometimes with assistance of other family members) prepared over 90 percent of the home-cooked meals.

When Beck looked more closely at the ingredients that constituted "home-cooked" dinners served during the workweek, however, another picture emerged. Most of these meals contained preprepared convenience food items. In fact, only 22 percent of the so-called home-cooked weeknight dinners were prepared with little or no convenience foods. That is, only a fraction were made primarily from fresh or raw ingredients.

The home-cooked meals took an average of 34 minutes of hands-on time and a total of 52 minutes to prepare. As the term suggests, preprepared "convenience" foods should take less time to prepare than cooking from scratch with fresh or raw ingredients. Heavy reliance on commercial food did reduce hands-on time significantly, but the difference was only 10 to 12 minutes.

Moreover, there was no significant difference in the total cooking time for dinners made primarily from convenience foods and those made primarily from fresh ingredients or a combination of fresh and some or limited convenience foods. This finding suggests that relying mainly on commercially prepared foods for dinner does not actually save a great deal of time for busy parents. The preference among some adults for preparing convenience foods may be motivated by perceived time pressures, while 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.


On the communal side, 77 percent of the families ate dinner together on at least one evening during the study. When everyone was at home during the week, 59 percent of the fifty-eight dinners recorded were eaten together as a family. When one or more members of the family were not at home during the week, 67 percent of the dinners were eaten together by the family members who were at home.

Alternatively, only 17 percent of the families ate dinner all together across the three days of recording, and 23 percent of the families never ate all together. In 50 percent of the households, a family member, usually the father, was not at home at least one evening. In 63 percent of the households, family members ate at different times (i.e., began eating more than ten minutes after others were already eating) or ate apart from one another in different rooms. Of the fifty-eight weekday dinners recorded, 41 percent were fragmented in this way.

Could there be a link between the kind of meal eaten for dinner and the extent to which family members ate apart or together? The short answer is yes. To address this question, we matched the contents of dinner meals with each family member's time and location at dinnertime. In 68 percent of the weekday dinners that were eaten at different times or in different rooms, family members ate meals made entirely or mostly of convenience foods or dishes brought home from a restaurant or take-out. In contrast, in 76 percent of weekday dinners eaten all together, family members ate meals prepared mainly with fresh ingredients.

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.


In dinnertime tussles with children, parental confusion over nutrition was evident. At the start of one family dinner, eleven-year- old Sandra asked to have some of the pink lemonade that her parents had placed on the table for themselves. Her parents pressed her to drink a glass of milk first. Sandra refused. Her mother offered an alternative: "If you are not going to have milk, you can have string cheese. " But Sandra had a counterproposal: "I'll have a Go-Gurt." Her parents agreed to this compromise. They likely did not realize, however, that alongside the healthful ingredient of milk, each Go-Gurt contains more sugar per ounce (4.89 grams) than does that brand of lemonade (3.6 grams) or even Coca-Cola (3.25 grams).

Similarly, during the Dorbin family dinner, eight-year-old Josh did not want to eat a "meatless meatball." His mother, a vegetarian, used a confused logic of nutritional value to change his mind, ending with a full admission of ignorance:

Mother: Eat at least one of these.
because it has your vegetable and protein in it.

I mean your protein.

Or your vegetables.
Or something.

Father: Or all of those things.

Mother: I don't know.

Parents the world over want their children to eat healthy meals, yet many middle-class parents in the United States focus children's attention on the nutritional properties of a food item to the extent that they forget about developing their appreciation of its taste. In contrast, middle-class parents in Italy frequently direct children's attention to the pleasurable qualities of food. Looking in on family dinners in Rome, Elinor Ochs and her Italian colleagues found that parents described different foods using emotion-filled language forms. Instead of talking about a piece of meat with the plain word pezzo (piece), they used the word pezzettino (an appealing morsel). This language infused kinds of cheeses, pasta sauces, and other dishes with sentiments.

We do not wish to imply that food standoffs between parents and children are confined to the United States. We do wonder, however, if parents' vocal preoccupation with savory foods as what children must eat for health reasons, instead of talking about these foods as delicious and what children want to eat for pleasure, may amplify the potential for power plays between generations.

In contemporary postindustrial societies, family meals are the Petri dish where personal and shared tastes and identities are cultivated together, and their cultivation can be relatively seamless (rare) or fraught (common). Taste is, ultimately, a sensual, private experience that is shaped by public, moral scrutiny, creating a lifelong tension between children's desire for freedom and their desire to affiliate with their parents, including how they value food and the ritual of dinnertime.

This post is adapted from Fast-Forward Family, edited by Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik.