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The pressure of cooking

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Today’s parents think they lack the time and the skills to throw dinner parties - and they are missing out

Hardly a week goes by without an article about how many are isolated and lonely. One way this is manifesting itself, sociologists say, is the decline of the dinner party.

Take Azba Habib. She knew all her parents’ friends when she was growing up because her family regularly hosted large parties for the families they knew.

Today, Habib’s daughter does not have a relationship with her mom’s friends. Habib rarely entertains and usually socialises after her toddler is asleep. Because she works long hours as a lawyer and her husband travels frequently for work, they prioritise family time on weekends.

“The last thing I want to do is spend that time cooking for a crowd,” she says.

Her preferences line up with a trend noted by sociologists in the recently published book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.

The authors cite data suggesting people across the economic spectrum are feeling too pressed for time and money to cook, let alone entertain.

Although Americans are investing more time in their children and spouses, they are less likely to have others over for dinner.

One study found the number of people who said they had entertained at home at least 12 times in the past year fell from 40% in the 1970s to 20% in 2003.

“We hear having dinner is the most important thing you can do for your children but the message is not tied to the community,” said Sarah Bowen, co-author of Pressure Cooker and an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at North Carolina State University. She and her co-authors studied nine women and their families to better understand how Americans cook and eat.

The book makes the case that today’s emphasis on home cooking and eating as a nuclear family doesn’t line up with reality. It also cautions against becoming too nostalgic about the past, because the way people eat constantly changes.

In the early 1800s, it was less common for the family to eat together than for the dining room to have a door open to the public, said co-author Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

“The table became this place where middle-class families would come together and enact middle-class values,” said Joslyn Brenton, another co-author and assistant professor at Ithaca College. She called the dinner party “a middle-class invention” designed to impress.

But some low-income families they profile in the book also fed others to build social capital and avoid food insecurity.

Habib says moms such as hers had so much practice cooking that they made it seem effortless to throw together “dawats”, the Urdu word for parties. At these large gatherings, suburban homes would overflow with guests.

Dinner came with little pretence, with the emphasis on the food itself rather than how it was consumed. People ate wherever they could find a spot.

“For me, cooking is like a chemistry lab. I need instructions,” she says. “I have to look up the recipe, get the groceries, put all that stuff together and hope I don’t mess it up.”

She describes it as exhausting and terrifying. She and her husband frequently order takeaways and were recently on separate meal subscription plans – his following a keto diet, hers a low-carb.

The reality is that as more families have two working parents, they have less time for cooking and cleaning. But Bowen says entertaining can make things easier for parents if they drop their expectations that the meal has to be Instagram-worthy.

“One of the core ideas of our book is that all the moms were trying so hard with food and parenting and felt like they were doing it by themselves. Eating together can reduce the isolation and pressure around dinner,” Bowen says.

Chris Coppola Leibner, who runs a cooking school, says: “There’s something to be said for enjoying company over food, sitting at your table for longer.”

When Leibner’s sons were young, she and her husband began inviting other parents and their children for pizza on Friday nights to have some company.

“She would buy dough from a pizzeria and whatever toppings were in season and churn out pizzas until the crowd was satiated. People helped and mingled and Leibner credits the parties with helping her sons forge bonds with the adults around them.

The idea of bringing people into the home as a way of expanding social support is the reason Aimee Carrillo Rowe, a professor and single mother who lives with her eight-year-old, eats dinner with friends every other night.

“It’s more fun and easier if everyone gathers around the kitchen island,” says Rowe. Her guests know they will be put to work. “You’re not going to come and have a three-course meal put in front of you.”

Rowe chose to have her daughter on her own, intending her friends to be family. “Part of the compulsion for having dinner with someone three times a week is that it’s lonely raising a kid by yourself.”

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