family dinner

If you've been feeling guilty about failing to serve your family a perfect, home-cooked meal night after night, I have wonderful news for you: According to a new study, the home-cooked meal is seriously overrated. Pass the takeout menu!

For a year and a half, a group of sociologists looked at all the hassle moms go through to put a nutritious meal on the table. They followed women from all walks of life as they went grocery shopping and as they cooked (or tried to cook) dinner for their families. "Cooking is at times joyful," their report says, "but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others."

Well no kidding. I could've told them that myself. I used to be one of those moms who always put a home-cooked meal on the table night after night.

Before I became a mom, I loved cooking. It was my passion. I spent hours poring over cooking magazines, shopping at specialty markets, and experimenting in the kitchen. So what if we didn't eat dinner until 9 or 10 at night? I was in heaven.

Cooking became even more important to me when I had my son. I had his nutrition to think of, after all. In fact, I became almost militant about family dinner. Why couldn't more people just make time to cook? It's not that hard! Didn't they realize how IMPORTANT it is?!?

Easy for me to say. I had a husband who cleaned up after all my messes, and I was a freelancer who worked at home. It's so easy to be righteous when you have that kind of support.

Things changed when I got a full-time job and started commuting into the city every day. We ate dinner later, and I started cooking simpler meals.

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Then my husband and I split up (not because of all the cleaning up he was doing, by the way). I tried to keep up the Gwyneth Paltrow organic supermom routine, but the burden of that and grocery shopping -- for two hours every weekend, ugh! -- started to wear on me.

And when I started a new relationship? Forget it. Here's what happened to cooking: When I start rattling off the things I could cook for dinner ("um let's see, I have some brown rice, and there's an eggplant, and I still have some basil ..."), my boyfriend gives me a look you give a confused child, pulls out his cellphone, and orders delivery. Did you know that I am surrounded by dozens of restaurants that cook perfectly fresh, healthy food? True story.

It's not because he doesn't appreciate my cooking. It's because my kitchen is a narrow dark corridor and because he wants my full attention. NOT my chopping-and-talking half attention.

By the way, this tiny, dark kitchen is also why my son and I don't while away the hours cooking together side-by-side like all good families are supposed to do. That and he has zero interest in cooking.

Meanwhile, there are dual-career parents who are still churning out the family dinners, and they'll tell you all about their strategies. "In the 15 minutes before you leave for work, throw a few things into the Crock-Pot ..." say food writers Jenny Rosenstracht and Andy Ward in a recent issue of Bon Appetit. What 15 minutes?!? Please, Jenny and Andy, come to my home and find me that 15 minutes, because I do NOT know what the hell you're talking about.

Or you find out either the wife or the husband is doing a LOT of prep work on the weekends. Super! That's exactly how I want to spend my Sundays: Baking a dozen mini-lasagnas, cooking massive amounts of chili, and making my Nona's seven-hour marinara. That. Sounds. Swell.

I don't even like chili.

Here's another idea. I could NOT do that and spend the weekend connecting with the people I love and who want to spend time with me doing something other than cooking.

I haven't given up on family dinner altogether. But I've pared way, way down. I'll cook maybe one or two from-scratch meals a week. Other nights we graze on whatever we can find: Yogurt, turkey slices, a chopped cucumber, leftover roast chicken. Or a banh mi sandwich from the place around the corner -- loaded with fresh vegetables, by the way.

I've made peace with delivery. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than fast food.

I admit ... I still harbor fantasies of having a larger kitchen someday, with an open plan and a counter with bar stools where I can cook and bond with my guys in a meaningful way. But until then, there's this amazing falafel place that makes the best baba ganoush from the chef's grandmother's recipe. And they deliver.

How do you feel about cooking family dinners from scratch night after night? Worth it or overrated?