Fast-food chains are cashing in on 'mum guilt' to make millions

It’s hard work being a mother  — and the modern era is only making it more difficult.

From social media, to blogs, to television, you can see countless images of an ideal, perfect mum that no human can ever meet.

Scrolling through the hashtag “mum guilt” on Twitter and Instagram, women admit to feeling guilty for any fault or indulgence: taking the time to exercise, not breastfeeding, going on a vacation, buying a purse, continuing to work, and even having kids get cavities.

There isn’t enough time in the day to do everything the theoretical ideal mother should do, whether that be constant engagement with kids or organic, home-cooked meals. So, when women inevitably fall short in some way, they face an engulfing sense of guilt that they have failed not only themselves, but also their kids.

Maybe worse than this feeling of guilt is the fact that businesses are cashing in on mothers’ insecurities — especially in the food industry.

The “home-cooked meal” is a touchstone for motherhood, a requirement that is stressful, expensive, and simply impossible for many women.

“A super-sized Greek chorus of experts, Internet opinion-makers and straight-up haters nibble at the cultural carrion of American motherhood,” restaurant consultant Tia Keenan wrote of the issue in the New York Times in 2014. “We don’t glorify the wholesomeness of the home-cooked meal — we glorify the hamster-wheel that is modern American motherhood.”

As healthy, fast-casual chains and organic brands sweep the US, they offer a third alternative to the two polar opposites of the time-intensive, expensive home cooked meal and often unhealthy, guilt-inducing fast-food options. However, in doing so, they lay on the mum guilt in a way that dangerously reinforces absurd expectations for mothers.

Take Papa Murphy’s, for example. The take-and-bake chain is based on the combination of the convenience of takeout or delivery and what CEO Ken Calwell calls “credit” for cooking at home.

“Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s and Little Caesars all focus on… young males, because young males eat a lot of pizza, or a lot of delivery pizza,” Calwell told “We’re the largest pizza chain that focuses on families or mums.”

The chain says that it spends the money it saves on employing delivery people or installing ovens and freezers in locations on higher quality ingredients, as prices are similar to those of delivery-centric competitors despite cutting major costs.

While Papa Murphy’s markets the take-and-bake model as a bonus for busy mothers, it’s hard to argue it is more convenient than delivery.

Instead, it is founded on a sense of responsibility for mothers to cook dinner at home. That is despite the fact that pizza baked in a home oven is rarely as good as in an oven specifically made for cooking pizza (despite Papa Murphy’s best efforts). Papa Murphy’s is banking on the fact that the “credit” for cooking something at home trumps convenience, cost, and potentially even taste. Basically, it’s a business model based on mum guilt.

Papa Murphy’s isn’t alone. Often, when chains are advertising to mothers, they’re subtly appealing to the voice in female consumers’ heads that says “you’re failing as a parent!”

Food delivery startup Munchery endlessly markets itself as a convenient way to hold the ever-important “
family dinner.” 

Chick-fil-A’s recent family-friendly innovations — new grilled options, the “Mum Valet,” and even the ‘Cell Phone Coop’ promotion  — are all focused on differentiating itself from guilt-inducing factors found at other fast-food chains, from calorie-count to family bonding. 

Organic kids’ snack brands are all about offering “better” options for mothers who don’t have time to prepare a dish from scratch.

All of these things seem positive in and of themselves. Eating as a family is great! We all should cut cell phone time! It’s good for kids to eat healthy and organic meals!  

But, in a world that is constantly blaming mums for falling short, these companies profit on an ideal of what a mother “should” do, even as they offer new alternatives.

“For me, it’s cooking homemade, organic meals from scratch,” writes Jessica Grose on what triggers maternal guilt in a Lenny Letter essay. “I haven’t been able to do this as much lately, because I am working longer hours, and I feel deeply awful about it every time I spoon Annie’s (organic!) mac and cheese and cut-up cherry tomatoes onto my daughter’s owl plate.”

When food companies cast themselves as better options, they imply that there is a best option — a home-cooked, healthy meal, made 100% by mum.

It’s great that companies like Annie’s, Munchery, and even Papa Murphy’s are offering families new alternatives to the traditional, mum-labour-intensive meal. However, consumers need to understand that these alternatives aren’t a morally positive or negative  — they’re just more options.

Mum guilt can seep into every aspect of mothers’ lives, but thrives especially in the realm of food. To defeat it, it’s time for mothers to freely decide the most convenient and right option for them, without input from companies’ that have a chance to profit from mum guilt.

After all, at the end of the day, an occasional pizza delivery isn’t going to ruin your kids’ lives. In fact, it might be exactly what you and your children need. 

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