Cooking at home and eating meals together as a family at our dinner table is incredibly important to me as a dietitian and mom of two young boys. The good news story: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Takeout and convenience foods are ok in moderation – but when processed, pre-packaged foods and take-out are the norm, it can edge into unhealthy territory.
Cooking your own food and eating it in the company of others are two of the most important things we can do to nourish ourselves and teach our children about healthy eating. According to Harvard, only about 30% of families regularly find the time to eat together. Gulp.
Canada’s Food Guide was revised not too long ago, and I love the changes they made. Among many changes, the updated food guide emphasizes cooking at home vs eating out and eating meals together (ie: not in front of a device or other screen or while driving, etc.). And I couldn’t agree more.
And to build on that, I am BIG on getting the kids in the kitchen and involving them in making food choices along with cooking our meals. Is it messy? Yes. Really messy. But it’s so worth it. I want Max and Charlie to grow up with a healthy relationship with food, understanding how to make healthy choices and how to cook a decent meal. Simply talking to them about food isn’t enough. Humans learn by doing!
Of course, let’s take a second to recognize that life is just really darned crazy these days. I think back to simpler times growing up, and can see how much more we are all putting on our plates. It’s hard to keep up some days. I’m a big fan of meal planning and even enjoy grocery shopping, but orchestrating it all on your own can be a challenge (the reason why we invented the meal plan).
Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project said it best in this edition of the Harvard Ed Cast:
“There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brains and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health, and in terms [of] nutrition, cardiovascular health is better in teens, there’s lower fat and sugar and salt in home-cooked meals even if you don’t try that hard, there’s more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home-cooked meals, and lower calories. Kids who grow up having family dinners, when they’re on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.
Then the mental health benefits are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self-esteem.”
Here are four ways to make family dinners more engaging, wholesome … and doable!
- It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Maybe most dinners are together, but there are some nights where it simply doesn’t work. That’s ok. It’s not a “fail” my friends.
- Put together a conversation starter jar where you have some fun, or funny, conversation starters that you take turns pulling out at the table. Giggles make dinners more fun – that’s a fact 😉
- Get the kids involved. Maybe they take turns deciding what’s for dinner, help cooking, or if they are old enough get them to cook the dinner! Try out different ethnic dishes to expose the family to new flavours and ingredients.
- Avoid heavy conversations at the table. For instance, if someone gets a poor grade or has done something wrong, the dinner table isn’t the place to bring this up.