Predictably, these drastic changes in how Americans spend their days has led to similarly enormous differences in how they spend their evenings. Women now devote a little more than half the average time per day cooking that they did in 1965. Men offset some of that labor by cooking 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 lack the most 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.