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Working Families and Weeknight Dinners in Los Angeles

Margaret Beck

UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families
Working Paper No. 45


This paper examines how working families put dinner on the table during the week. Using filmed dinner preparations and dinner consumption by 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles County on two weeknights, I ask three questions: How often do they cook at home? What do they serve? How much time do they spend?

Of 64 weeknight dinners, 70 percent were prepared at home and did not include food purchased from a restaurant as either take-out or delivery. On average, home-cooked meals contained 3 dishes and required an average of 34 minutes hands-on time and 52 minutes total time to prepare. In 53 percent of the 64 weeknight dinners, at least one parent in a household demonstrated some independent cooking ability by preparing a meal at home that was not dominated by commercial food. Only 22 percent of all weeknight dinners were prepared with little or commercial food. Meals dominated by commercial foods required, on average 10-12 minutes less hands-on time than meals with only some or limited use of commercial foods. No significant difference with reliance on commercial food was found in total meal preparation time.

Although simple meals with limited numbers of dishes can be prepared quickly, not all families or individuals want to prepare or eat such meals. Reasons may include food preferences or the increased shopping and planning time or cooking skills needed to use fresh raw ingredients. Parents dissatisfied with their family’s diet would benefit from more time to dedicate to the issue, but the extra time is most needed for shopping and planning rather than the meal preparation itself.

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