Friday, April 8, 2011

Restoring the Family Meal

Recently I overheard a conversation between some of the moms at my sons’ high school, bemoaning how the only time their families eat dinner together anymore is during holidays like Thanksgiving. I have heard that a lot from friends over the years.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking is becoming the norm for American families. Today both parents often spend full days at the office, commute an hour or more each way, and spend their weeknights and weekends carting their kids from one extracurricular activity to another. Family members often eat meals in shifts. Mom and one child might microwave frozen dinners before heading to music lessons, while Dad and the other child might just get burgers from a drive through on the way to the soccer game.

“The stress and preoccupations of every day life can make it difficult for parents and children to find time for family dinners,” observes Tom Baranowski, Ph.D., a Baylor professor of pediatrics and psychologist with the Children’s Nutrition Research Center’s Behavioral Nutrition section. “Yet, family dinners, and the talk that can happen there, are extremely important.”

According to Baranowski, family meals provide parents with the opportunity to connect with their children—to show and express concern for them, hear their perspectives and ideas, and even share funny experiences and light-hearted conversation after a long day at work or school. This can help form stronger bonds between parents and children, and promote family unity.

Furthermore, by planning regular meals at home for the family, you can ensure that your children will be eating a well-balanced diet. Kids left to themselves to find something to eat are likely to choose a diet of toaster pastries, potato chips and frozen pizza.

Now you may not think the family meal isn’t part of “hospitality.” But it is. Your immediate family members are some of the most important people you should be showing hospitality to. Furthermore, if you aren’t eating meals together and you’re just throwing quick meals together ad hoc, you get even more out of the habit of cooking and meal planning. Throwing a dinner party becomes even less likely to happen. For these reasons, I thought I’d make a blog post about the family meal. What follows are some suggestions for restoring this endangered tradition and making mealtimes a positive family experience:

* Set your priorities. If you and your family rarely have meals together, try to cut out some of your kids’ extracurricular activities, optional night classes or meetings you might be involved with, overtime at the office, etc., to give you the time your family needs. “Strong family relationships are more important than chairing that fundraiser or having your child play on another team,” says Linda Brock, Ph.D., a Marriage and Family Therapist and assistant professor of Family Sciences at Texas Women’s University.

* Decide how many nights you’ll eat together, and do it. Aim for at least 3-4 family meals per week. “To make family meals a reality, schedule them on the calendar,” advises Anne VanBeber, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Texas Christian University. But don’t think family meals have to be dinner. “If breakfast is easier to plan than a dinner meal, make a commitment to gather in the morning several times a week,” VanBeber suggests. Figure out when most family members are available for a meal and adjust your schedules accordingly.

* Get everyone involved in meal preparation. Make mealtime as a family project–from preparation through clean up—rather than expect Mom to do it all (especially if she’s been at work all day!). The whole family can be in the kitchen together, one child setting the table, another child making a salad, Mom heating the dinner rolls, and Dad grilling the steaks. After the meal, everyone can help clean up. Even young children can have a part to play. One mom friend told me how her 5- and 7-year-old sons are great helpers. “They’ll pitch in by filling the water glasses, rinsing raw vegetables, washing lettuce for a salad, serving dessert, and clearing the table,” she relates. “It makes them feel needed, and it really does take some of the load off me.”

* Be creative. Try to come up with unique menus now and then—just to make mealtime more fun. Backyard cookouts, T.V. trays on the porch and picnics in the park are all enjoyable meal alternatives for the summer months. Try ethnic food themes. One night everything you serve might be German and another night might be Italian. Fondues, making mini pizzas together, and Mexican fiestas with plenty of chips and salsa are also fun, and they slow mealtime down, allowing for more time to talk.

* Eliminate Distractions. Turn off the television and radio during dinner, and let the answering machine pick up phone calls. If there is a favorite television show which comes on during the dinner hour, record it to watch later. The goal is for family members to focus their attention on each other.

* Keep conversation pleasant. Be ready with some good conversation starters. Ask your children how their own day went at school, get their thoughts about any interesting news stories you heard about today, talk about the family’s plans for the weekend, or elicit their ideas for family projects. If you heard a new joke or if something funny happened to you that day, share it. The family meal is not the time for discipline, power struggles, lectures, arguments, nagging, criticism or sulking. Discuss your son’s failing test grade with him at a time other than dinner. If your daughter tells you at dinner that she is upset about a problem, reassure her that you want to hear what she has to say, but suggest the two of you talk after the meal. Try to keep table conversation happy, positive and upbeat.

* Choose easy entrées. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to cook, you can still have some wonderful family meals at home. Put a roast and some veggies in your crock pot so that dinner is ready when you get home from work. Have a pizza delivered for dinner so all you have to do is make a salad. Take shortcuts, such as buying pre-washed lettuce for salad, brown ‘n serve dinner rolls, and pre-cooked rotisserie chickens. As I’ve said about entertaining in general, what matters most is that the family gets together—not that everything you serve has to be homemade.

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