The research is clear. We can—and, if you ask me, should—consider it with a healthy degree of questioning. No research can tell us how to live lives optimally. We can only work out what’s best for ourselves and our families, and no two families will make all the same decisions. That would be boring. That said, we can’t get around the facts:
Children do better when they share regular family dinners with their parents and siblings.
My guess is that dinner isn’t actually the thing that makes the difference, but that a commitment to regular family dinner represents a larger, more significant set of commitments. Like a commitment to cooking, which usually means healthier meals. A commitment to family discussion and connectedness. A commitment to socializing with family and friends. A commitment to sharing. These are the commitments that help families stick together and make kids feel cared for. And cared for kids do better.
I’d venture to say that even just a handful of regular family meals would do the trick, so long as all of the other commitments are in place, too. Don’t be overwhelmed by the research and stats. Dueling schedules, various bedtimes and just plain exhaustion can make family dinner seem impossible. And that’s not even to mention trying to stay connected as a couple, which has to be as important to our children’s health as family dinners. (Sometimes being a happy couple means spending time—even dinnertime—without the kids.)
I know. I totally get it.
We all get it. We’re all in the same boat and, for me, that’s what this initiative is about. Data reveals us; we know that family meals aren’t happening. We also know that it’s not because you’re a bad parent. It’s just hard. But, together, we can come up with ideas to help each other make as many family meals as possible a manageable reality.
These are some of the ways that I fit in family meals and I want—need—to hear from you. How do you do it? Or, if you don’t, how do you try or want to try? What works and what really doesn’t work?
Let’s build an arsenal of ideas, tips and techniques that arm us with what we need to make family meals happen, even just a few per week.
• If we can’t schedule in family dinner, I try to fit in other family meals like breakfast, family dessert or, on the weekends, even family teatime! The point is to share healthy foods together.
• Keep meals simple. It’s not so much about the food as it is the time you spend with each other. Sometimes dinner is as easy as a hummus platter. Your family doesn’t need fancy, they need family.
Other keep-it-easy tricks (click for full recipe):
dress quickly grilled meat with a 5-minute sauce;
sauté chicken in butter and capers in 10 minutes;
or toss pasta with butter and cauliflower.
• Encourage kids to help in the kitchen. Engaging with kids as you cook gives you more time to chat and you get to work together as a team. If they are too young, you’re moving too quickly or there’s another reason why it’s hard to have kiddo help cook, give them another job. It can be as simple as having them draw the “recipe” you’re making.
Stacie Billis writes at One Hungry Mama, which offers favorite family-friendly recipes, tips, techniques and product reviews to help you satisfy your own hunger and inspire healthy hungers in your children. Many recipes are coded by age (6 months to 24+ months) to give parents a guide to introducing foods. She is also a co-founder of ChowBaby foods.