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How the job of feeding the family turned into a spread-sheetable, multitask problem

It used to be “Dinner’s on the table!" Now, parents are stressed-out short-order cooks.

Amanda Nurse prepared homemade pizza alongside her 2-year-old son, Riley, at their home in Brookline. “My son is really picky,” she said, “and my husband is really picky.”Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

True story: When Amy Fitzgerald was growing up in West Roxbury as one of five kids, her mother would make dinner and the family would just eat what they were served.

“She never asked us what we wanted,” said Fitzgerald, 49, a hair stylist in Dedham, “and I can’t imagine she stressed about it.”

Fitzgerald, who recently attended a class for people suffering from Instant Pot anxiety (also a true story), has turned herself into a short order cook. Fearful of leaving someone hungry or unhappy, she often makes one meal for her vegetarian daughter, another for herself and her husband, a third for her meat-loving sons.

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“My mother thinks I’m crazy,” she said.

How did dinner become so scary? Aren’t we living in what should be its golden age?

Meal kits are practically delivering themselves to our doors. Bags of pre-cut vegetables — just right for stir fry! — mean all we need to do is add rice and a protein. And a merciful change to an unspoken rule means that dinner can count as “homemade” even if you just assemble it from already cooked items in the supermarket’s hot bar.

And yet, listen to Tara McCarthy, a clinical nutritionist with Boston Children’s Hospital. “I have not met one parent who doesn’t fear dinner,” she said.

Hear Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University: “The stress can come from anywhere,” she said of dinner.

To people not involved in dinner drama, the fact that a simple meal can spark tension seems absurd.

But for people caught in dinner’s vise — typically parents with kids at home — the stakes feel high, the challenges steep.

One family member is suddenly vegan, another hates vegetables, and the tween wants only protein. One kid has to eat before hockey practice at 5, another after the SAT prep class at 7, unless she goes out, she’s not sure yet she’ll let you know, and your husband is working late. Can we have dinner at 9? And oh, he’s Paleo now.

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Meanwhile, on Instagram and Facebook, other families are enjoying mealtime collegiality, or at least appear to be, while you ran out of time to grocery shop on the way home from work because you were running late for day care pickup, the dog needs a walk, and with Uber Eats whispering its siren call, everyone wants to default to take-out, pricier and less healthy though it likely is.

And oh, no pressure, but everyone knows that dinner is the key to healthy children and strong familial bonds.

“Parents feel they have to have this beautiful home-cooked meal and get in all the nutrition and have a great conversation,” McCarthy, the nutritionist, said, “and it’s a lot of pressure when everyone is tired and cranky.”

Her advice: Make breakfast and lunch more nutritious and take the pressure off dinner. “The important part of dinner is to be together.”

It sounds so simple, but despite the fact that we’re surrounded by food, ruts are rampant. “I always make the same three things and everyone is bored,” a Boston Children’s Hospital doctor said as she shopped, for the same three things, at Trader Joe’s.

Never mind that dinner is sometimes consumed in mere minutes. Its pressure can loom over an entire day.

“My boys ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ first thing in the morning,” Fitzgerald said.

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The question became so overwhelming for one mother, Tara Jefferson, a self-care coach and speaker, that in December she bought a large-grid calendar and planned family meals for all of 2020.

“I did it in 2019 and it helped TREMENDOUSLY,” she tweeted.

Extreme planning simplifies grocery shopping, reduces food waste, and makes it easier for other family members to at least do some prep, she said.

And yet, your future self doesn’t always want what your Dec. 31 self dictated, as Jefferson, who lives in Stow, Ohio, learned the first time around. Her plan allows for meal swapping and she also sentenced herself to fewer nights cooking. “I’m down from six nights to four,” she said.

Oh, in case you’re wondering what the family will be having on, let’s say, Oct. 17, it’s red beans and rice.

In Brookline, as Amanda Nurse’s toddler zoomed around the children’s section of the Brookline Booksmith choosing books to have read to him, the well-known marathoner described her dinner stressors. “My son is really picky,” she said, “and my husband is really picky.”

Figuring out a meal that will make all three happy — the two guys are meat eaters and she’s a vegetarian — and then cooking while occupying little Riley is not relaxing.

But you would not know that from her Instagram feed, where — despite the fact that she feels she does not have it all together — the food pictures the running coach posts exude good health and zen.

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“What book is that [recipe] from?” her followers ask, their own stress likely rising as they see how easy it looks for Nurse ... and wonder what’s wrong with them?


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.