How America Lost Dinner

People want to cook and eat together. Modern life has other plans.

A dirty, empty dinner plate
Paul Taylor / Getty

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Right now, a box of food from a meal-kit company is probably moldering in my apartment building’s mail room. I haven’t been down there in a few days, so maybe there isn’t one at this very moment. But more than two years of living in this building has taught me there’s basically always at least one box, forgotten and slightly stinky. When I visit friends, I often walk past a similar scene next to their elevators: cartons from Blue Apron or HelloFresh, waiting to find out if they’ll ever become the dinners they were meant to be.

Forgetting you mail-ordered a bespoke set of ingredients for a selection of restaurant-style recipes is a luxurious predicament to be in, but the frequency with which those meal kits seem to be abandoned points to the very same problem they were invented to fix: Consumer surveys have found that most people who buy meal kits do so in hopes of saving time. As it turns out, it takes time to unpack, cook, and clean up after a meal-kit dinner, too.

While Blue Apron reported more than 1 million subscribers back in 2017, the meal-kit market today is struggling to retain subscribers. People seem no closer to consistently finding time or energy to cook. Instead, many turn to popular chains such as Chipotle and Sweetgreen; the fast-casual takeout market is only expanding. People who want to save time in the kitchen “meal prep,” the lifestyle-influencer world’s preferred term to describe cramming enough cooking into one day to spread the results out over an entire week of meals.

It isn’t just buying groceries and figuring out meals that apparently have become more untenable in the past several decades. The very act of feeding yourself in America has changed in fundamental ways. Dinner is the meal in which the social ramifications of those changes are perhaps most acutely felt. People in the United States eat alone more frequently than they ever have before. After decades as the idealized daily performance of the country’s communal life, dinner as it’s commonly imagined has begun to vanish.

For most of history, dinner was no great shakes. For years, the evening meal—or any meal, for that matter—didn’t have a place in the home to become an event. “Rooms and tables had multiple uses, and families would eat in shifts, if necessary,” the dining historian Mackensie Griffin writes for NPR. “If there weren’t enough chairs for all members of the family, the men would sit and the women and children might stand.” While the concepts of a dining room and dining table technically were imported to America from Europe in the late 1700s, it took until the mid-1800s for them to filter down from early adopters like Thomas Jefferson to middle-class households, according to Griffin.

Once everyone got to sit down, dinner gradually transformed from merely the day’s late meal to a cultural institution in which all members of the family got the chance to fulfill their social roles. In the American imagination, men came home from work to gaze upon the beautiful wife, obedient children, and comfortable home their salaries provided. Women spent their days making sure the domestic realm met those expectations. Dinner was theoretically when that labor could be left behind and the spoils of modern success could be enjoyed.

This cultural rebranding began in earnest after World War II. As white Americans decamped for shiny new suburbs and reimagined their lives in spacious single-family homes, social pressure to project an image of domestic tranquility became intense. These residential areas lacked the restaurant and bar options of denser cities, so family life became more centered around the home than ever before. Embodying the American dream every night was considered both patriotic and morally necessary, and having the money for this kind of domesticity was thought to be a sign that people prioritized hard work and family values. Eating together every night didn’t just mean you were well fed; it also meant you were a good person.

Today, half a century after these ideals took hold in the American psyche, plenty of cultural pressure still exists for both women and men to fulfill them, at the dinner table and beyond. Americans still want the economic stability and work-life balance that would enable them to regularly cook and eat with loved ones, even if they want the institution of dinner itself modernized. And, certainly, people still find ways to sit down and eat together as frequently as possible.

But there has also been tremendous upheaval in the structures of American life and work. Women—the people traditionally forced into meal management—have voluntarily entered the workforce in droves or been forced into it for financial reasons. Average commute times get longer seemingly every year, ensuring that working adults get home later and later. And almost all middle-class work now involves a great deal of time spent on a computer, which means millions of Americans’ jobs don’t end for the day when they leave the office. For many, their work never really ends at all.

Predictably, these drastic changes in how Americans spend their days have led to similarly enormous differences in how they spend their evenings. Women now devote a little more than half the average time per day to cooking compared with 1965. Men cook a bit more on average, but their increased time in the kitchen is not nearly enough to make up the difference. Fast food has proliferated to fill that gap, especially among low-wage workers who most lack resources and control of their own time. More recently, the rapid expansion of pricier “fast-casual” chains that claim healthier and fresher offerings suggests that an even broader proportion of the population is now looking for quick fixes. Going out to dinner is fun, but if it feels like the only option, it can drain bank accounts and make people feel unable to care for their bodies.

This net loss in meal time can beget a nagging tension. There’s that lingering moralistic pressure that it’s important for you to cook wholesome food, sit down with people you care about, breathe, enjoy. But for many people, the trade-offs it would take to get there push the ideal dinner farther and farther out of reach. This can weigh especially hard on parents, who often simply don’t have the time that preparing family meals requires. In a 2011 survey from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of parents said they had dinner with at least one of their children at least a few times per week; only half said it happens every night. A 2014 poll found that more than half of adults felt that they had fewer meals with their families now than when they were kids.

The most detailed meal stats are kept on parents, and for most of modern history, surveying the country’s landscape of married people and parents would give you a pretty solid idea of how even young adults were living. In 1968, for example, 83 percent of people between 25 and 37 years old were married. But in 2018, only 46 percent of people in the same age range had tied the knot. Today, 24 million more households consist of adult roommates than in 1995. From February 2018 to February 2019, 45 percent of American meals were eaten alone.

Eating alone or with an inconsistent set of friends, dating partners, and housemates can make cooking at home a tricky proposition. Food marketers are fast at work developing products to serve the burgeoning band of solo eaters, but many grocery packages and recipes are developed for multiple people eating the same dish the night it’s made. (Good luck buying a single chicken breast.) People navigate this by eating out, grabbing takeout, or ordering from a delivery app. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of adults under 35 had eaten dinner at a restaurant in the previous week, and 41 percent had done it two or more times. The numbers were far lower for adults over 55. Among young adults making less than $30,000 a year, most still had a restaurant dinner. Cooking is less expensive in the long term, but a well-stocked kitchen and time to prepare meals are often very difficult to come by for the working poor.

Eating dinner alone is still eating, of course. But food can have far more value than just calories. As public-health campaigns are keen to remind people, there are good reasons to cook dinner and eat with your family. Cooking gives people better control and understanding of what they consume, which usually leads to more healthful choices than whatever a restaurant serves up. Preparing food and eating with friends or loved ones is also the kind of intimate bonding that strengthens social ties. Researchers have compared isolation’s impact on health to that of smoking cigarettes, and Americans are deeply lonely. Those who worry about the deterioration of dinnertime aren’t simply scolds.

They might be scolding the wrong people, however. By all indications, Americans want to cook and eat together. They’ll subscribe to delivery ingredient boxes by the millions, buy a staggering number of Instant Pots and air fryers, and make the internet sometimes feel like one giant recipe swap. It isn’t that they’ve gotten lazy or gluttonous. The very structure of American life has changed to make the basics of stability difficult to attain, down to something as simple as eating with your partner or child, or having a partner or child at all. The problem of dinner is far larger than what you’re going to eat.