07/03/2012 09:28 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

Why We Need to Protect Family Meals

We live in busy days and there's no doubt that my kid's childhood looks different from my own and certainly different from my parents'. My kids are each involved in one activity at a time, or at the most two if it means they aren't over-scheduled, and still family dinners don't happen as frequently as any of us would like.

Sitting at the table with us months before he was eating solids, we've cherished family dinners since my first-born was brought home from the hospital. Whether he was in the sling, or a bouncy seat, we instilled a family tradition: to gather around the table in the evening for a shared meal.

As a busy working mom, one of the constant joys in my life since having kids has been this time together. It started with those precious moments when they were babies, as a sleep-deprived zombie mom; I truly enjoyed even the middle-of-the-night feedings, as I knew they wouldn't last forever.

I relished spoon-feeding my children their first tastes of peas and carrots that I pureed myself, and teaching them how to pick up O-shaped cereal with their tiny little fingers. Watching them maneuver a spoon full of pureed squash to their mouth on their own was endearing entertainment and a million times better than eating in front of the TV.

All along, I'm glad that our children were learning table manners, how to feed themselves, and early lessons in making healthy food choices. I'm proud to say that as toddlers, we confidently brought them along to five-star restaurants (those excursions were rare, but they always came with us).

Life Just Gets Busier

Fast-forward a few years later to today when work, sports activities, special events and school board meetings too often interfere with our beloved family dinners that we all look forward to. These are precious moments when I learn about the highs and lows of their day, and they reveal nuggets of thoughts and dreams that we rarely hear outside of our dinner table. I wouldn't trade these moments for the world, and yet I feel like we work even harder to make them happen during our busy weeks.

While family dinners are important to us, I know it's not a unique Rau Family thing -- families across the nation appreciate this time together and find creative solutions to make it happen, despite what gets in the way. Research and studies continue to stress just how critical family dinnertime is to good grades, and drug avoidance -- and the food industry celebrates the entire month of September to bring awareness to this important message of family mealtime. We like to invite special guests to join our family dinner.

Trading Family Mealtime for Convenience

So, when Laurie David, author of Family Dinners: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time, sent a tweet recently pointing to a New York Times article titled "Putting the Squeeze on a Family Ritual," I had to read the story. Laurie and I are both passionate about family dinners and I knew by her message that I'd get fired up.

Oh, what an understatement.

The article describes this "new trend" in convenience targeted to busy parents of infants and toddlers: pureed organic food in a pouch.

From the NY Times article:

Parents, he (Neil Grimmer, chief executive at Plum Organics) explained, want to be as flexible as modern life demands. And when it comes to eating, that means doing away with structured mealtimes in favor of a less structured alternative that happens not at set times, but whenever a child is hungry.

Will food in a pouch replace mealtime?

To me, it sounds like he wants to do away with structured mealtimes, like a family dinner. He wants to empower babies by giving them the control to eat when they want to?


When I connected with Laurie David on this topic she shared this:

"The concept is about handing the feeding of your child, to the child himself. Grab a pouch if you're hungry, no need to wait for a meal."

The Benefits of Convenience?

I'm curious who truly benefits from these products: the child? The family? The busy mom? In the end, I wonder if any of them really benefit from this equation.

The child isn't going to learn how to use utensils, how to sit at a table for a meal, and certainly doesn't learn table manners or observe examples of social etiquette that happens at the family table. The family loses out on valuable conversations and bonding time. And does mom feel really good about this decision?

Sure, she's feeding her child an organic snack but there are better ways to serve up healthy snacks and meals without cutting family meals from the calendar.

Laurie David expressed her disappointment in the lack of appreciation on family dinners again:

This takes the snack concept which is already grossly overdone and heavily promoted by snack food companies and puts it into overdrive. No need to wait for meals anymore. And what about the thousand and one benefits children get from sitting at a table, eating home cooked food and talking!

Setting Our Children Up for Healthy Success

Beyond the tremendous value of family dinners, I question the eating habits developed with this new line of convenience food. The people interviewed for the article reference that they give the pureed food in a pouch to their three, four, and 5 year-olds as a snack and meal replacement. Should a 5-year-old walk about the bookstore sucking pureed food from a pouch?

Toddlers should be enjoying the food that their parents are: real foods with lots of flavors and textures. The longer we wait to introduce new flavors, tastes and textures, the more likely they are to resist them.

Snacking All Day Doesn't Promote Healthy Eating

Talk with any dietician and they'll advise you to sit down at the table, not in front of the TV, and enjoy your meal in order to develop healthy eating habits, so why would we encourage our children to eat their meals on the go? It shouldn't surprise anyone that this generation is facing extreme rates of disease linked to poor food choices like childhood diabetes and obesity. We need to help our children develop healthy eating habits for life-long health, and it starts with their first foods.

On the topic of snacking, Laurie adds:

"The obesity epidemic makes it clear that America's snack food craze is part of the problem. The constant sipping of juice in sippy cups, the constant snacking between meals -- all are contributors."

OK, here's my bottom line: Just because food is organic doesn't mean its promoting healthy habits.

Fruit is already convenient -- at most it needs peeling or a quick bath of water and it's ready to enjoy. I'm comfortable admitting that we rarely even wash organic fruit unless it has dirt on it (and even then it gets a wipe). With just a bit of thoughtful planning, there's no need to turn to these convenient foods to replace a meal, no matter how busy life may be or how picky your child appears.

For my kids, I'll keep packing grapes, string cheese, bananas, apple slices, almonds, carrot sticks and red bell pepper strips for our snacks so that we're prepared for those cries: "Mom, I'm hungry!" And I will continue to spend time each weekend planning our family meals for the week ahead. It's a small investment (really) with rich rewards in the future of my family.

If you care about protecting family meals, please share this with a friend. Thank you!