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Cooking Healthy Family Meals Can Be Harmful To Mom's Health, According To Child Psychologist

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cooking family meals harmful mom health

Moms try so hard to do it all right (gluten-free, non-GMO, low sugar, etc.) but it all gets to be so stressful that you want to just give up and order a pizza instead of cooking a healthy family meal.

In my home, we struggle with food allergies, one of my kids is a vegetarian, one likes red meat, and one periodically entices his siblings to join him in a chicken strike.

It's enough to make this mommy psychologist rather crazy.

Why cooking family meals becomes harmful— for mom's health

Personally, home-cooked meals are the bane of my existence. I work full time, I have three children, and my husband gets home about two hours after I do.

That leaves the lion's share of the daily cooking to me.

I've read all of the studies about the importance of the family dinner hour, the meaningfulness and health factors of the home-cooked meal, but I will tell you this — that "good for the family" cooking is a never-ending source of daily stress for me (and for many other women I've talked to). 

The science behind the relationship between home cooking and stress is mixed.

On one hand, a 2021 study published by Frontiers in Psychology found positive psychological effects derived from home cooking during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the other hand, a 2014 study published by PBS revealed that home cooking disproportionally burdens mothers.

I'm pretty sure there are few women who would disagree with the findings of the PBS study.

In my childhood, my mother also did all of the cooking but she wasn't so stressed out about it. Why is that?

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Looking back at the 'Crisco' years

Because of her little flavor-enhancing shortcut: Crisco shortening. My mom cooked at least one part of most of our dinners with Crisco.

And as any child of the 70s and 80s will tell you, anything cooked in Crisco shortening is delicious. 

Of course, I don't use Crisco in my own modern-day cooking because we now know how terribly unhealthy it is.

I also don't use margarine. I don't buy soft drinks. I try to limit highly processed foods. 

In other words, my mom didn't have the same limitations in meal preparation as I do. My mom was a really happy camper, dinners were yummy, and believe it or not, we were all thin and healthy.

Life was good in the Crisco years. 

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Food should taste good and be healthy — yeah, right

Today, many women are given the primary responsibility of cooking the family meal but with the added pressure of being told that our families will be dysfunctional if we don't cook Pinterest-worthy meals for them daily.

We also are hemmed in by outrageous (and expensive) limitations on what counts as a healthy meal. No wonder contemporary cooking mothers are so crabby.

As one mom told me, "I was making green smoothies for my family and feeling all Super Mom about it until a nutritionist told me not to even bother unless all of the products in them were organic, otherwise my green smoothies were essentially a toxic chemical [brew]. And I got so mad because, seriously, I can actually fail at green smoothies. ... I was just done dealing with anxiety about food at that point."  

So what can we do to make the dinner hour happy and not so harried?

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Here are three meal prep mindsets that work wonders for me

1. Meal planning and prep should not be exhausting

It's not a nourishing meal if mom is exhausted after making it. Moms, if you end up drained and depleted after shopping at numerous stores, on a budget, to avoid GMOs, non-organic and anything that resembles sugar, then the benefits of the family meal have disappeared.

The family meal should be about the family first and foremost and less about the food. Moms, do your best, ignore the critics and haters, and find a happy medium that works for you and your family (emphasis on for you).

Give yourself permission to ignore the concept of meal perfection and find a place that sufficiently feeds your family, doesn't ruin your day, and gets as many of you as possible to the table as frequently as possible. 

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2. You define what is 'good enough'

Don’t shoot for perfection every meal, shoot for good enough. If you are insisting that every last dish on the table has to be the poster child for optimal nutrient value, you are the one who will suffer.

Aim for a six out of 10 meals being close to ideal versus 10 out of 10.

Make your life easier by relying on easy sides like sliced vegetables and dip, fruit, or microwaveable side dishes. 

I know some of you just passed out after reading the word microwave. We are just going to have to agree to disagree on this topic. 

My house is neither 100 percent organic nor 100 percent radiation free.  At some point, I had to choose between being an overwhelmed, over-stressed mom who hit numerous grocery stores per day, took forever to cook meals, and needed copious amounts of wine to calm down versus being a more relaxed, happier mom who is slightly less than organic and radiation-free.

At least I don't use Crisco.

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3. Make sure 'family' is the focus for family meals

Moms, what your kids need more than a perfectly executed kale quiche is some serious connection time with you. 

What makes family dinner special and "nourishing" is the time you spend together not the gourmet level of the meal. Your children will be so much better off if you come to the table happy, calm, and ready to enjoy their company versus stressed out, depleted, and resentful.

Dinner should not be a morality issue. You are not a bad mother if your meals aren't perfect in every way.

Don't let the world dictate to you how to make family meals better for your family. Do what works for your family and let the guilt go. 

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Ditch the guilt at dinnertime

Guilt and self-judgment is a terrible combination for making happy moms (or happy families).

How healthy a family is should be defined by the joy that comes from the time they spend together, not just by how well mom can exhaust herself putting perfect meals on the family table.

If you are feeling stressed out every day as you think about dinner, it's time to give yourself a break.

Do you want to know how to make family meal time more nourishing? Bring a joke to the table, or a funny anecdote — serve up a side of joy and "I'm so glad to be here with you", but don't make yourself crazy counting every calorie, every chemical, and every ounce of protein.

Ask your family to help you plan, shop, and prepare meals so that it's a team effort and more enjoyable for all of you.  

Crisco worked for my mom and the periodic frozen pizza works for me.

We are all doing the best we can do and striving for perfection is an exhausting and humorless goal.

So, smile, shoot for the six out of 10, and enjoy that time with your family at your next meal. 

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Lisa Kaplin is a psychologist, certified professional life and executive coach, and a highly experienced corporate speaker. She helps parents overcome stress and overwhelm in order to find joy in their personal life.

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