Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Families That Eat Together....

What time is dinner? Used to be my kids could count on a 6pm dinner hour every night. If they were home. Some days all five of us ate together, but most days we ate in shifts. Whoever was home at 6 ate then, and everyone else warmed something up later. But then this year I messed everything up. At least for my daughter who prefers that we eat between 5 and 7 (when her computer is shut down by the computer gods). These days dinner might be at 5:30 and it might be at 7:30, it’s even ended up being 8pm (“think of it as European…”).

What’s brought this change? Possibly my middle-age panic that I’m missing out on what’s left of my kids’ time at my table. And possibly the fact that there are too many people going in too many directions every afternoon and it’s become difficult to figure out what I can cook in 15 minutes between car pools that will still be good 90 minutes later. 

Now we eat together. Except for Thursdays. Thursdays are “Fend for yourself nights”. That evening was just too complicated to find a common dinner hour. Mondays mean band rehearsals and drum lessons, so we eat at 7:30pm. On Tuesdays we eat early at 5:20 before soccer and bass lessons. Wednesdays is an after-practice meal at 7:15. Fridays we have to follow practice with Pizza Night at 8 (cocktails at 6:30). Saturday and Sunday nights are the only days we come close to our habitual 6pm feeding. The kids are adapting. And amazingly, it’s working. 

And now a recent study has revealed what I must have instinctively known all along. Family meals make your family healthier. Rutgers University recently evaluated nearly 70 studies to gather information about the benefits of families eating together at home. The studies revealed that families who eat together have a healthier diet and consume less junk food. Plus teens who eat at home with their families show fewer signs of depression. And all family members are more likely to have a healthy weight.  

40% of the typical American food budget is spent on eating out which makes me wonder how many of us are eating together as a family around our dinner table. This is a no-brainer. You can save money, be healthier, and help your kids by cooking and eating at home. Okay, I hear you now. But how do we get a healthy meal on the table when we’re busy with work, volunteer commitments, and shuttling kids to and from all of their activities?  

No, I don’t have an easy answer. But I have a few helpful suggestions.

  1. Create a family meal book. Ours is a looseleaf binder with menus and recipes that most everyone likes. Half the time (at least for me) it’s the challenge of thinking of something to eat that slows me down. Two of my kids prepare a meal each week, so they consult this book when they do their meal planning. I regularly add new recipes I discover in my travels to prevent it from getting too boring.
  2. Keep staples in stock. Our freezer will always have ground beef, homemade broth, fish, veggies, fruits, meatballs, and chicken tenders in it. These are the ingredients that the kids need to make meals. You will also find fish sticks, French fries, hot dogs, and flour tortillas for nights when dinner has to be quick and easy. Our pantry is always stocked with pasta sauce, olive oil, good vinegar, applesauce, soup, crackers, beans, ketchup, pasta of every shape and size, rice, potatoes, garlic, and onions. Because I know these things are there, I can cook confidently and the kids have what they need when it’s their turn to cook. Your pantry would probably look different – take your cue from your recipe binder.
  3. Keep a good shopping list posted where everyone can add to it. Ours is on the side of the fridge. The system is – if you open the last one, add it to the list. That goes for anything – can of beans, bottle of ketchup, jar of jelly, clove of garlic, paper towel roll. This system makes my life easier. I don’t have to try to remember everything we need. The only time it fails is when I forget the list when I go to the store.
  4. Keep meals simple. You don’t have to have a fancy meal for it to be healthy. For us it’s typically – some kind of protein, one carbohydrate, and two veggies or fruit. Done. I can get a healthy meal on the table in five minutes or two hours, depending on my day’s options. Cheese & bean burritos, corn, and applesauce is a five minute meal.
  5. Utilize your crockpot. Everyone’s got one. At least everyone who ever gets married. I got three for my wedding. Nothing reduces stress like knowing dinner is ready to go the moment you walk in the door. A few of my favorite crock pot meals (e-mail me for recipes or check the recipe link on the blog) – Beef Stew, Meatloaf, and Lasagna. I can get all of these ready in the morning and come home to dinner ready to go. The internet is bustin’ with crockpot recipes, blogs, even websites so get your pot on!
  6. Get everyone involved in making the meal happen. Every day my kids have either “set, clear, or dish”. This makes getting a meal on the table much more feasible. It also underlines their investment in our meal. We have a chalkboard mounted on the wall near the table which lists who has which job. I recreate the board each week based on who will be home to set the table and whose schedule would make dishes a better option.
  7. Make eating together a priority. My kids fussed when I initiated this new practice. I ignored them. If they were hungry and dinner wasn’t for two hours, I pointed them towards the baby carrots and dip or I opened a jar of applesauce. I did not cave. It only took a few weeks for them to get the message. Remember – You’re the adult here. You get to make the rules.
  8. I’m sure this is implied, but when you gather for a family meal, turn off the TV and leave the electronic habits elsewhere. Focus on being together.
  9. One last idea here – once you’ve got them all sitting round the table, encourage the conversation. I have a friend that asks her kids to tell them one good and one bad thing that happened that day. My kids like to ask if anyone has new jokes (there seems to be an endless supply if you attend a middle or high school). I like to ask them one thing they learned today. At first it garnered sarcastic comments like, “the corn dogs in the cafeteria are gross”, but now I get much better answers. If necessary make a few rules like “No talking about minecraft at the table” (they would have conversations that lasted the entire meal and my husband and I had no idea what they were talking about.)
Like any change, it takes awhile to make this happen. But it’s worth it. Don’t take my word for it, take Rutgers’. Here are a few comments from the newsletter highlighting their findings: 

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showed that teens who take part in regular family meals are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use marijuana and other drugs. 
Studies have also shown that children and teenagers tend to have better grades when their families have dinners together at least five times a week. The Columbia University study showed that frequent family dinners were associated with better school performance, with teens 40 percent more likely to get As and Bs. 
Kathleen Morgan, chair of Rutgers Family and Community Health Sciences, states that having healthful meals during the transition from early to middle adolescence impacts the development of healthy eating behaviors for youths. Morgan claims that the period from 12 years to the late teens is "one of the most dynamic development periods in a person's lifetime, and habits established in this time frame are more likely to last." 
Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, reflects that "family supper is important because it gives children reliable access to their parents. It provides anchoring for everyone's day. It emphasizes the importance of the family." 

I think that last comment is the one that most resonates with me personally. Our family meal anchors our day. All five of us are going in many directions all day long. We’re encountering people, teachings, and media that offer conflicting messages about life, values, and the choices we make. It’s good to come together near the end of each day so that we can process what we’ve heard, seen, and experienced with people who love us and support us no matter what. After being disconnected all day, it’s a few precious minutes to reconnect.

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