Bring Back the Family Meal

Mom or Dad has to work late, the kids have soccer practice and lots of homework.  With today’s busy schedules, its not easy getting a home cooked meal on the table, and everyone in the same room to eat together.  It’s no surprise that families can find themselves hitting the drive-thru on the way home more often than they might like.  According to USA Today, people consume 50% more fat, calories, and sodium when they eat out, so eating on the run too much is not good for our waistlines.  And to those who think they are saving money eating fast food, some home cooked dinners can be more economical than a fast food meal according to the NY Times.

But the advantages do not stop there, it turns out that regularly sitting down to a family dinner can benefit kids and families in two other big ways:

  1. Creates adventuresome eaters.  A recent study showed that eating together as a family encourages kids to try new foods.  In order for kids to develop their palate, they need to be exposed to a wide variety of foods, so a family that sits down to the same meal together are helping their children explore different tastes and flavors.  Some foods can be an “acquired” taste, so repeatedly exposing kids to foods will help them to acquire some of the more advanced foods. Exposing children to a rainbow of vegetables and fruits, is very important, and starting with baby’s first foods is a great way to start.  Kids that are fed “kid food” like pizza, mac n cheese and nuggets every night are much more likely to end up being picky eaters, and also could eventually be deficient in nutrients.
  2. Makes kids less likely to smoke, drink or do drugs. According to a recent report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, families who eat dinner together the most (5-7 times a week) have teens that are four times less likely to smoke, half as likely to drink alcohol, and also less likely to use marijuana or drugs.  Probably in large part because of the open lines of communication that are developed around the dinner table, family meals are a place for families to talk and bond. Kids who eat home cooked meals might also be getting a more balanced diet, a healthier diet means that kids are less likely to have behavior issues and are also less likely to get an ADHD diagnosis (read Is It ADD or NDD, 12 Inattention Culprits?).

So with today’s over scheduled calendars, how can a family fit in dinner in between after school sports and activities, homework, and work obligations?  Here are seven tips that can help families bring the family meal back:

  1. Make an appointment for dinner.  Decide which nights you want to sit down together as a family, and put it into your work calendar like you would put an appointment.  Unless a major emergency comes up, stick to your schedule and make sure you are home on time.
  2. Plan ahead.  If you are trying to put together a meal as you arrive home at 6:00pm, you probably won’t have the ingredients, the energy, or the inspiration.  Avoid those obstacles with a little planning.  One day of the weekend, sit down with your favorite cookbook, search the Internet, or watch your favorite Food Network show.  Select a few dinners you want to make, write out your grocery list, and get the ingredients.   When you get home, wash all the fruit & vegetables, prep and cut anything that you can (onions, fresh herbs, salad ingredients, etc.).  The more prep you can do ahead of time, the easier the weeknight meal becomes.
  3. Get a Crock Pot.  It may not be the most glamorous kitchen tool, but for a busy family, it can be the difference between the fast food burger and fries, and a home cooked meal.  You set up the crock pot in the morning, it can slow cook all day long and by evening, your dinner is ready!  Check out these healthy crock pot meals from Family Circle.
  4. Re-purpose proteins.  If you take the time to roast a chicken on Sunday night, why not roast 2 of them, and then you have some already cooked chicken for another meal?  But instead of just reheating it, shred it up and make a chicken tortilla soup, chicken salad, or a chicken sandwich.  If you had steak for dinner one night, re-purpose the steak and make tacos or a sandwich another night that week.  The protein takes the longest to prepare, so having already cooked protein means you can whip up something pretty quickly.
  5. Serve fish or go meatless.  Fish and vegetables do not take as long as other proteins to cook.  Often you can have something prepped and cooked within 20 minutes.  Fatty fish like salmon is also high in omega 3s, which is important for brain health, heart health, and more.  Make sure to get wild whenever possible, as it has significantly higher omega 3s and other antioxidants such as astaxanthin.  This is one of our family’s favorite salmon dishes – Citrus Glazed Salmon from Health magazine, ready in 12 minutes, including prep.  Because of the sweet orange glaze, this is a very kid-friendly recipe too.  Going meatless 1 day a week can benefit our health, our wallets, and the environment too – there is a new trend called Meatless Monday‘s where families around the country are eating vegetarian on Monday nights.
  6. Start young.  As soon as baby is sitting in a chair, they can be a part of a family meal.  The earlier you start, the more your child will become accustomed to the routine of dinnertime.  Kids that eat on the run all the time will be more likely to get up and run around during mealtime and not sit down to eat.  Kids today eat about 30% of their calories as snacks, according to a recent study from the U. of North Carolina. But many snacks and kid foods are empty calories, with lower nutrient-density.  As baby gets older and has been exposed to more foods, they can begin to exploring and eating much of what is served on the table for dinner.  Read: Butternut Squash & Pear Puree and Soup.  Toddlers can become picky, so even if a kid does not like a certain vegetable, keep putting it on the plate, as it can take up to 15 exposures before they develop an affinity for certain foods.
  7. Just do it.  Cooking is like anything – the more you do it, the easier it gets.   I find the less I cook, the lazier I get in the kitchen.  The more I cook, the easier it is to turn out a family dinner, and the more creative I am in the kitchen.  So just get into the kitchen and just cook, the more time you spend in the kitchen, the more it will become second nature.

Degenerative diseases like diabetes are on the rise, with one in three kids predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime.  And as the saying goes, “pay the grocer now, or pay the doctor later.” Fast food can cost us way more in the long run in terms of our health. Creating healthy eaters can help to prevent obesity and many related diseases.  So making time to cook a healthy meal and sit down to dinner together as a family is worth the extra planning and effort it takes.   Give it a try, and remember – the more you cook, the easier it gets; you might just be creating a healthier, happier family in the process.  Does it mean you are a bad parent if you pop a frozen pizza in the oven occasionally?  Of course not – we might not have time every night to make a home cooked meal, but the nights that we do – will benefit the whole family.

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Article written by Sara Vance, a Clinical Nutritionist in the Encinitas, CA area that occasionally pops a frozen pizza in the oven too.

Sara offers nutritional counseling, School Assemblies, group classes, kids healthy cooking, and more. Sara works with each client to develop an all-natural foods and supplement based approach to optimal health.  Visit ReBalanceLife.com for more information.  Friend Sara Vance at ReBalance Life on Facebook.

©2011, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

3 Responses so far.

  1. [...] Why should baby be the only one to benefit from the Fall’s bountiful harvest?  If you are planning to make a butternut squash & pear puree for baby, you are already halfway to making Butternut Squash & Pear soup!  Having a tool like the Baby Bullet can help make it easy to make beautiful purees for baby, or the perfect base for a soup.   Making the same food for baby and the rest of the family saves time and money, and it also means that the whole family can benefit from the plentiful nutrients and enjoy a meal together.  Eating together as a family has many benefits, read: The Importance of the Family Meal. [...]

  2. [...] to try new foods. Eating together as a family has also been shown to offer other benefits, read Bring Back the Family Meal for more [...]