A once-ubiquitous feature of American life -- the family dinner -- is in a sad state of decline. A variety of factors -- such as the influx of women in the workforce, the increase of single-parent households, the lack of leisure time among America's middle class and the proliferation of on-the-go, fast food culture -- have transformed family mealtime into an occasion reserved for holidays, family reunions and football playoff games.
Yet, the demise of family dinners is not a foregone conclusion. We can all do our part to preserve this tradition for the next generation. With that in mind, I encourage parents to make this May their Family Mealtime Month. Changing entrenched behaviors is never easy, but bringing your family together around the table for a healthy and affordable meal doesn't have to be like herding cats.
The decline of family mealtime is not just a tragedy for nostalgic adults -- it has real consequences for children. There is an abundance of data detailing the advantages that "mealtime children" have over their "non-mealtime" contemporaries.
According to research cited by TIME magazine, children who enjoy regular family dinners are less likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide than their peers. They are also more likely to do well in school, delay having sex and develop healthier eating habits -- both at the family dinner table and when they are away from home. If a pharmaceutical company could deliver the benefits of a family dinner in a pill, it would have a blockbuster on its hands.
You might not believe it, but research also shows that, kids actually enjoy family meals -- even teenagers. In a survey cited by the Journal of Nurse Practitioners, 79 percent of teens indicated that they enjoy dining with their families. This same group of teens reported that they preferred family meals to watching TV and rated their enjoyment of family meals as high as going on vacation. Sixty-five percent indicated that they would be willing to give up a weekend activity if that would enable them to have dinner as a family.
Your kids will not only benefit from family mealtime -- they'll remember their experiences fondly into adulthood and will pass the tradition on to their children. Here is a four-step guide for parents to bring mealtime back and include their children in the process.
Step One: Recipe Selection
It's not easy to come up with healthy and affordable recipes that your children will enjoy. So start small, and shoot for one meal per week. Once that becomes routine, you can gradually add more meals until you hit the ideal mark of three or more family dinners each week. You can get started this weekend by sitting down with your kids and a couple of cookbooks to select your first meal. Cookbooks with beautiful photography will engage your children and give them a clear image of what you're working towards. Recipe selection is a way to spend quality time with your kids and teach them basic goal setting.
Step Two: Shopping
Grocery shopping is by far the most time-intensive element of creating a home-cooked meal. The good news is that preparation can greatly reduce the time you spend at the supermarket by consolidating shopping into one trip per week. Rather than organizing your grocery list by dish, I recommend sorting by category of food and the location you'll find the items in the supermarket. This will enable you to move from section to section of the store without having to zigzag back and forth.
Many children love going to the grocery store -- especially if parents make it fun. Don't frame a trip to the grocery store as a chore -- it should be a chance for discovery. Grocery stores offer countless opportunities for stimulation. Your kids can weigh fruits and vegetables on hand scales, order meat or fish from behind the counter, discover ethic foods from all over the world and help you pay at checkout. Grocery shopping is also a chance to teach your children about the importance of buying fresh, seasonal ingredients. Show them the benefits of "shopping on the perimeter" of the store and encourage them to stay away from the processed foods that make up the majority of the middle aisles.
Step Three: Preparation
Cooking together is as much of a bonding experience as eating together. Get your kids in the kitchen and make them your sous chef. I've been fortunate enough to work with many great chefs during my career and I can't tell you how many of them got their first experiences in the kitchen by helping their parents make family meals. Even if your child is not destined to become the next Iron Chef, I guarantee you they will enjoy the food more if they've had a hand in making it.
Step Four: Mealtime
Here comes the fun part -- savoring the accomplishment of serving your family delicious and healthy food. In order to give your kids the full intellectual and emotional benefits of family mealtime you should make the dinner table a technology-free zone. Turn the TV off, leave the cell phones in another room, shut down the laptop, put the video games away, and turn the iPad to sleep mode. As a general rule, if it has a battery, it shouldn't be at the dinner table. This is your opportunity to connect with your children, find out what's going on in their lives, acknowledge their successes and help them with their challenges. Take advantage of it and enjoy.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
According to a 2005 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, family dinners get easier over time. Conversely the less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is going to be, the less healthy the food and the more meager the talk. So don't worry if your first attempts don't go perfectly. It's better than the alternative and your family is worth the effort. Get started this May.
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