Last year, I got a surprise email from a Wall Street Journal contributor, wanting to talk about how and why my family eats snacks for dinner.
I imagine I looked like the perfect interviewee to ask about snackdinners, given my website of the same name. “Snackdinner” captures both my favorite meal and my parenting style. It’s also an homage to my own parents, whose snackdinners of bread, cheese, deli meats, and produce kept four picky eaters healthfully fed while letting us think we were getting away with something.
When contributor Alina Dizik asked me if some foods were ever “off limits” at a snackdinner, like cheese doodles or candy, I started to get nervous. It was clear after a few minutes that we had completely different definitions of the snackdinner. For me, snackdinner isn’t license to eat junk food. It’s a way to re-brand dinner to be enticing to kids. For Dizik, snackdinner was sounding more like a junk food revolution.
As a relatively new blogger about to be described in a national publication, I was more than a little panicked. Would I draw the ire of health-conscious parents during an obesity epidemic? Was my blogging career over before it started? Would the world think I was a lazy mom preaching laziness to other moms? I got even more nervous when the article, titled “At Dinnertime, Snacks Become the Main Event,” ran with a photo of a dinner plate buried under a mountain of potato chips.
It turns out that picture was just an attention-grabbing lead into a more nuanced article. Dizik described a software developer’s duck rillettes with cornichons and a personal chef’s cheese boards alongside my own plate of goat cheese, dates, strawberries, nuts, and bread. We are not unhealthy people looking for an excuse to eat chips for dinner. We are just people who like food but also like not to cook once in a while.
In what should come as no surprise, the article has not drastically changed my life as a blogger. Perhaps it’s elevated me from invisible to mostly invisible. Not a single person contacted me to judge my dinner decisions. A few people even thanked me for teaching them a new name for their favorite dinner.
But every few months, when the article re-runs, I’m worried anew: will people see that chip mountain, under its new title “The All-Snack Dinner,” and think I’m a bad mom feeding her kid chips for dinner?
Time saved is time judged
I’m not the only one worried about how my family’s food looks from the outside. Every time my kid eats in the company of other kids, their parents turn into food-apologists. I wish my child would drink milk. My son only eats dinosaur nuggets. My daughter just ate chips for dinner.
I am absolutely confident this is not a reaction to my child’s eating habits, as his last two dinners were plain pasta and a bowl of oyster crackers. Long gone are those halcyon days when he would happily gum grapefruits and whole rounds of goat cheese.
When did we all get so apologetic about our children’s diets? I can’t think of a single time my own mother apologized for my limited palette, though my father still likes to tell people that four children couldn’t agree on a single shape of pasta. My food preferences were a reflection of me, not my parents.
One answer might stem from the way that household responsibilities have shifted. In More Work for Mother, historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan traces how turn-of-the century technological developments that appeared time-saving actually created more work for women. When large-scale milling operations supplied the masses with fine flour, women transitioned from making cornmeal-based quickbreads in favor of wheat versions that required fussier prep time. Along with the wheat came the ability to make cakes, which required arm-stiffening egg beating. You might think the invention of mechanized egg beaters lessened women’s burdens, but instead it created a demand for egg-based angel food cake.
This technology-mediated work, Cowan argues, happened across the household. The transition from stiff, unwashable fabrics like felt and leather to flowy fabrics like cotton created the weekly task of laundry. The shift from candles to gas lamps required soot cleaning. The fact that domestic tasks had become easier or cheaper to do didn’t suddenly free up women’s time; it just shifted women’s responsibilities.
Later time “saving” technologies created similar time sinks. Stand mixers and pre-made cake mixes might have made dessert making simpler and less time consuming, but they ushered in magazines featuring elaborate cakes that encouraged every woman to master cake decoration. Sewing machines may have once signaled less time to make simple clothing items, but have led to ever-more elaborate Halloween costumes.
Cowan published More Work for Mother in 1983, but she easily could have written it about today’s parents. Look at a parenting blog today and you’ll see ample evidence of the same technological phenomenon. The ease of online shopping is undercut by the amount of research expectant parents put into their baby registries. The fact that home decor supplies are are cheap and plentiful means more exquisitely-decorated nurseries. The existence of high-performance blenders has produced a generation of moms with freezers Tetrised with homemade baby food cubes.
Cowan argues that, as household chores have shifted, their functions have transformed. In women’s magazines, she argued, a chore was depicted “no longer as a chore, but rather, as an expression of the housewife’s personality and her love for her family.” In this view, lunch isn’t just sustenance. The perfectly-arranged bento box is a symbol of love. A parent’s relationships with her children are measured by the depth of her sandwich-cutter collection.
What really worries me about that chip-covered dinner plate is not that people will think I’ve fed my family an unhealthy meal, but that they’ll think I don’t love my family, at least not enough.
When my cart is piled high with macaroni and cheese or the checkout conveyor is transporting seven types of conversation hearts, I’m compelled to explain myself. “I’m a writer! We’re doing research!” I’m not worried that the cashier fears my son’s inevitable Type 2 diabetes. I’m worried that she thinks I don’t love him.
A recipe for overcoming food guilt
When I put it in words, I realize how ridiculous my reflexive fear of food judgment was. I know I love my son. My son knows I love him. Eating chips for dinner every night would not change this. But might eating chips for dinner help me swallow that fear?
There are plenty of ways to eat chips for dinner while still being healthy (I’ve even written about it). One of my students’ families used to eat “walking tacos,” which is a mixture of spiced ground beef, lettuce, and cheese dropped into snack-size bags of chips. Judging by the number of walking taco recipes online, as well as Frito-Lay’s line of extra wide Walking Taco bags, hers was not the only family. Depending on what you put on them, nachos can also be a relatively balanced meal.
But neither of these options work for me, because they create soggy chips, an unacceptable compromise to make for the illusion of healthy eating. Moreover, they’re presented as excuses. It’s okay to eat chips because salsa is salad. It’s okay to eat chips because cheese and guacamole are protein.
So last night, we just ate chips. Well, my husband and I used the chips as vehicles for unconscionable amounts of guacamole. But my son stuck to chips. He was delighted. We were all full. We will eat regular dinner tonight. And we still all love each other.