Tonight many millions of Americans will have dinner in their homes. Some will heat up a can of soup or microwave a prepackaged meal or call the pizza place. Some will throw a casserole together. Others will make something special for family or friends, maybe even Grandma’s family recipe. Millions of decisions will be made, and there won’t be any civil disorder. There may be drama at some family dinner tables, but there won’t be riots in the streets.

“We’re having lasagna tonight,” isn’t usually considered a controversial statement and rarely makes anyone nervous when someone brings it up in a social setting. Some people will disapprove of the animal products needed to make lasagna. Others will determine that the dish is too caloric, too much work, or too expensive, or that it isn’t healthy enough or tasty enough. But few of them bother to protest their neighbors’ decision to break out the noodles and cheese and sauce. 

But what if the federal government planned everyone’s meals? What if everyone had to have lasagna on one night and tofu on the next? “What’s for dinner?” becomes a controversial and sensitive issue. If lasagna lovers have succeeded in having Monday declared lasagna night, lasagna lovers and their non-exempt neighbors have their lasagna by permission of the government. If I love lasagna, but my choice comes at the expense of my neighbors’ preferences, I and my neighbors have conflict where none existed before. My neighbors may not have cared for or even approved of my lasagna, but they could be indifferent to it or tolerate it when they didn’t have to eat it. 

Imagine a Federal Bureau of Nutrition, Meal Planning, and Home Food Preparation (NMH). The experts would make sure we all ate “appropriate” meals. The promise would be that we would be healthier and thinner and safer. Home cooks would be licensed. There would be no more excess of fattening or unhealthy food, no more improperly prepared recipes, no more underage children operating dangerous appliances. We would be promised there would be less waste and that we would save money somehow. There would be fewer cases of food poisoning. 

In addition to all that, we would be exposed to a greater variety of foods, foods representative of other cultures and traditions. We would, of course, as a result of growing up eating sushi and latkes, be more open to trying new things and listening to new ideas. Those who opposed any expansion of the bureau’s benevolence would no doubt do so out of racism and xenophobia or out of indifference or hostility toward children or their fellow man.

That sounds a little far-fetched, but that’s because we don’t have a DMH. If it had been around for as long as anyone could remember and had become more powerful over time, we would take it for granted. It wouldn’t likely even occur to us that we didn’t need one of those. We might not ever consider whether or not we could decide what to have for dinner on our own. None of us would likely have ever heard of Grandma’s recipe. 

Of course, mealtime being a federal issue, we’d look to Washington to impose our preferences on our neighbors and to local legislators to the extent that Washington allowed local governments to make certain choices. From time to time, the mall would fill up with protesters demanding less meat or more fiber or more desserts or inclusion of more foods representing a particular culture. Lobbyists from groups representing companies that produce food products and lobbyists representing consumer groups wanting foods that better suit their needs and circumstances would fill the halls of congress. Our airwaves would fill with passionate voices of our fellow Americans explaining the persecution of Americans of various minority ethnic groups or arguing over what constitutes a legitimate medical or religious exemption from particular legal requirements. It would all be part of the messiness of democracy, and the occasional kook who suggested that we didn’t need a department to cost us billions telling us how to make dinner would be dismissed without much thought to his outlandish idea. 

But we don’t have an NMH, so we go along on our way without one. No one is sitting in line at some bureau waiting to renew a home food preparation license and, of course, pay the associated fee. Unlicensed cooks are making macaroni and cheese or fried rice right in their own homes. 

Someone will burn their dinner tonight. And someone probably will wake up with an upset stomach tomorrow, because it really is a good idea to consume or discard a particular food product “within 7 days of opening.” Some of us will make unhealthy choices. Some of us will never try anything new or anything with a funny name from a faraway country. Some will eat pork or drink table wine or keep a kosher kitchen. And I’ve heard that one can special order bull testicles, so presumably, someone does that. Those choices may be offensive or silly or disgusting to some others. If enough people feel strongly enough about it, the laws where they live can reflect that. But, by and large, we all make our own decisions and allow our neighbors to do the same. 

Would we receive any benefit for all our billions from our fictitious bureau if we had one? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But we would be less free. Without one, we are more free, and we live with our neighbors in peace.