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Cherishing the Family Dinner

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I have a confession to make.

I regularly let my kids watch television while eating meals.

Well, lets make that several confessions.

I find planning dinner, and meals, in general quite stressful.

I am not a natural cook, and get insecure about how my cooked meals turn out.

I constantly feel stretched for time, and it's easy to revert to pasta, some basic raw vegetables, and an easy boiled chicken hot dog (a healthy organic one) for my kids meals.

Big public confessions for me. Confessions that make me -- an advocate of conscious parenting -- feel a little bit like a bad mom. Confessions that make me stop and think about the choices I am making on a daily basis without really thinking about the long-term consequences.

Well, I decided after speaking with Laurie David and reading her new book, The Family Dinner, that it is time to make some real changes about my families eating habits. My intent is to consciously plan regular, healthy, family dinners.

Laurie's book is filled with some amazing statistics that consciously planning family dinners has real emotional and physical benefits for children.

  • Compared with teens who rarely have family dinners, those who have them regularly are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or try marijuana.
  • Compared with teens who rarely have family dinners, adolescent girls who frequently eat meals with their families appear less likely to use diet pills, laxactives or other extreme measure to control their weight, even fiver years later.
  • On average kids spend more than 7 ½ hours on electronic media.
  • One in three American children are overweight or obese, Regular family dinner can reduce the incidence of childhood obesity.
  • Kids who have family dinners get better grades and test results, are less likely to get depressed, are more motivated at school and have better relationships.
  • For me, statistics alone are not the driving force behind my intent to change. I was reminded while reading her book about how family dinners have deeply shaped and anchored me.

    Growing up, my mother made sure we ate home cooked Indian food together every night. It was at the dinner table that we shared stories from the day, discussed politics or family gossip, learned about our traditions and generally connected with one another. When we traveled to India, meal times are my favorite memories. They were the time when my grandfather, Daddy, would tell us long, never-ending stories about our family history, his patients, memories of British India and partition, philosophy, interesting people. Maa, my grandmother, would impatiently tell him to stop talking so we could get up, and he would add more detail and just keep talking. I still tear up remembering those dinners.

    I realize that much of the reason I have a close, healthy extended family, is because my mother, and my mother-in-law in India, made a conscious choice to put effort into making sure our family put in the time to be connected. A meal together, even when there are long bouts of silence or tension, makes you come together. Regular mealtimes are anchoring emotionally, spiritually.

    Like so many others, my home today is filled with unopened emails, errands not done, cell phones ringing, text messages, television shows, over scheduled activities, homework. In the process, I can see how each individual in my family is getting more consumed with their own busy-ness. That saddens me.

    Laurie's call for regular family dinners isn't an easy one - it takes time, attention, planning. What I enjoyed about her book though is that she makes the aspiration for family dinners seem attainable, fun, magical - the book is filled with simple recipes, ways to get the kids involved in cooking, setting up the table and cleaning up, conversation starters, and practical advice.

    More importantly, she advocates actively mandating family dinners and other rules for the dinner table. In reading her rules, I realized that making a choice to eat (and cook) together is about making a decision on how I want to shape my family. No more excuses about not cooking well or being too busy. I was reminded that as parents, we teach through example and action, not just words.

    I am a big believer in the power of ritual. What better ritual to bring to our family than the daily coming together of healthy food, conversation and gratitude around a family dinner? I am inspired to create this ritual with my kids - getting them more involved in planning meals, cooking, setting up the table, cleaning up afterwards.. (There are great tips in the book.) Activities I know they will love at the innocent ages of 6 and 8, and hopefully will evolve into activities that anchor them in the emotional years to come.

    I see my kids growing up so quickly, and am already nostalgic about so much of our cherished time together. I smile thinking about the laughter, stories, and memories we have yet to create together around our dinner table.

    Check out Laurie David's The Family Dinner at Amazon.com.

    Mallika Chopra is the founder of Intent.com, a site focused on personal, social and global wellness.

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