We did not eat meals as a family when I was growing up. We did not have TV dinners either. In fact, TV dinners were non-existent in rural Russia 30 years ago. One of the reasons for not eating together as a family was practical – our tiny table in the kitchen simply could not sit comfortably more than 3 people at the same time and we were 4. Another reason was that family meals were not seen as important, and, in fact, talking while eating was discouraged. So when, after hopping around the globe for a little while and finally settling down in New York, I got around to having my own kids, I had very little idea about what family meals were about.
What I did have however was a good understanding of what a balanced meal should look like. I was lucky to witness the most effective nutrition education in action thanks to the hard work of my mother who aside of her full time job also had to grow, harvest and preserve the produce that made the bulk of our family’s diet. It is difficult for me now even to imagine the amount of hard work she put daily into putting the “non-family meals” on the table. Needless to say, the same meal was served to all family members. In fact, picky eating was unheard of and seen only occasionally in city kids who came to visit their grandparents in summer months. I was starving after having spent all day playing outside and would swallow anything, be it stewed cabbage, beet soup, fried fish, meat cutlets, sauerkraut – you name it.
My mom had very little access to nutritional information of any kind and the meals in my family were a no-nonsense practical way of getting calories. We were presented with a plate of food and were expected to finish it. That’s it. No alternatives, no cajoling and no discussions about how carrots make you see well in the dark. In fact, my mother never really worried about nutrients. Vegetables were considered somewhat inferior to more filling options such as meat and rice and I have no memories of her ever bothering to tell me that greens were healthy.
She never restricted sweets, either. But they were expensive and we could not have them often. When I craved something sweet, some bread and homemade jam seemed to be just right.
Now in the environment I am raising my children the pyramid is turned upside down: my children are surrounded by processed snacks conveniently available around the clock and bombarded by confusing nutritional messages, often carefully crafted by food manufacturers and marketers.
So what do I do in order to raise my kids as healthy eaters? Interestingly, the same principles my mother followed, willingly or not, seem to work beautifully in my Spanish/Russian/American family. Cooking from scratch and not fixating on nutritional properties of foods became customary family mealtime principles for us. I am a registered Dietitian with a Master degree in Nutrition Education but I never speak to my children about nutrition.
Instead, I speak to them about food, the flavors, colors and textures they are happily exploring. I make the food taste great by adding good amounts of seasoning and fat, just like my mother did. I spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen but I consider it a long-term investment in my children’s health and eating habits. I am not looking for perfection or elaborate combination of flavors when I cook, but I make sure to put a meal on the table everyday despite our busy schedules and tempting stacks of takeaway menus in the lobby.
I am thankful to have a dinner table that is big enough for all of us to sit at the same time and we are putting it to a good use. All activities are scheduled around our family time at dinner, because my husband and I believe that eating together is at least as important as piano or swimming lessons, if not more.
And I know my mother enjoys sitting down to a meal together with my family when she comes to visit. And I hope she can feel the love and care I put into preparing our simple dishes just like she did many years ago for me.
Natalia Stasenko believes that helping children adopt balanced eating habits early in life is essential for their future relationship with food and for healthy family dynamics. As a mother of two, she has a first-hand experience trying to feed her family nutritious meals without losing her mind. Her mission is to help parents guide their children towards balanced eating habits in evidence-based, simple and delicious ways while keeping their own wellness goals in check. You can connect with Natalia on Twitter (@NataliaStasenko) and Facebook.