By: Helen Lammers-Helps, Freelance Writer of www.hlhwriter.com
Article originally posted on www.country-guide.ca
20 years of research proves that sitting down to eat together is good for body, brain and mental health.
Here is one thing you can do that will help your kids succeed in school and life, and it’s as simple as making it a habit to eat together as a family. It sounds too good to be true, but true is exactly what it is.
That’s according to Dr. Anne Fishel, a family therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who should know. The author of Home for Dinner, Fishel literally wrote the book on healthy family meals.
She is also the co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, a non-profit organization that aims to help families have more fun, more meaningful conversations and healthier family dinners.
Fishel says the research is very compelling. When it comes to physical health, home-cooked meals tend to be better for us than restaurant or take-out food. Home-cooked meals are lower in fat, sugar and salt, and kids who eat at home consume more fruit, vegetables, fibre and vitamins than kids who eat out.
Studies have also shown that dinner conversations are better boosters of a child’s vocabulary and reading ability than even reading to your kids. And whether or not a child regularly eats dinner with their family is a better predictor of their academic performance than doing homework.
Teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families are less likely to have high risk behaviours such as substance abuse, they are less likely to be violent, and they are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
And even after children leave home, the protective effects continue, with young adults less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily.
Fishel is only half-joking when she says that if more families ate dinner together, her counselling practice would go out of business.
Yet while eating meals as a family sounds simple, in reality it can be tough to do on a regular basis. Fishel says surveys show only about half of families eat dinner together five or more times each week. With the pressures of field work, equipment breakdowns, off-farm work, kids’ activities, elder care and volunteer commitments, finding a time when all family members can sit down together for a meal at home can be challenging (continued below).
Managing conflict at the table
5 Tips from “Home for Dinner” by Dr. Anne Fishel
Fortunately, the positive effects of shared family meals aren’t limited to dinner. With a little creativity, you may be able to find more ways to bring family members together for sustenance. It could be breakfast after the morning chores are done, an after-school snack, or even a bedtime snack.
Fishel says that any block of time you set aside to be together to connect with one another will suffice. During harvest, it can even be a picnic on the truck tailgate.
While the research is based on eating together at least five times a week, Fishel anticipates there would still be advantages if it was less often. The power of family comes from the quality of conversation around the dinner table. It’s a time when families can tell stories about the things that happened to them, seek advice about how to handle challenges that came up that day, or talk about issues going on in the world. The dinner table can also be a place to seed important family values and promote a sense of belonging.
With a lack of time being the No. 1 reason families cite for not eating together on a regular basis, Fishel shares some tricks that help make it easier to get a healthy meal on the table in a hurry.
Use shortcuts. You could pick up a grocery store rotisserie chicken and then make a healthy salad to go on the side. The carcass can be used to make a healthy chicken soup the next night.
Make double batches and freeze half so you have an extra meal for a night when you don’t have time to cook.
Swap meals with friends. If four of you each make a quadruple batch of a favourite meal, then you have three meals to swap with each other.
Serve quick foods for supper. Eggs, pancakes with fruit, or soup and salad make healthy but quick meals.
If satisfying multiple tastes is a problem, choose build-your-own meals such as mini-pizzas or tacos.
Older children and teens can be involved in menu selection, preparation and cleanup. If teens are reluctant to eat at the table, have them create a music playlist, ask them how a recipe could be improved, or find out what conversation topics are out of bounds. You don’t need to bring up a teen’s poor score on a math test at the table, says Fishel.
And while getting everyone around the table is half the battle, modern technology may prevent family members from truly connecting with one another at meal times even though they are physically present.
Phones and other screens should be used judiciously at the table. Screens prevent face-to-face connection during the meal. In fact, surveys have shown that parents tend to be the worst offenders.
Fishel recommends putting phones away but says some families will allow them solely for the purpose of sharing a funny text or photo or for Googling to settle a dispute.
Perhaps the most important thing you need to do to make family meals a reality is to prioritize them. Fishel estimates it only takes an hour to make, eat and clean up from a family meal, asking “What else can we do that takes only an hour a day but packs such a big punch?”
Fish Tacos (for 4)
This recipe was created by the son of Dr. Anne Fishel to recreate a version he ate from a food truck. Dr. Fishel says re-creating a dish at home that you’ve tasted at a restaurant (or food truck) can be fun — a great shared activity.
Frittatas (for 4)
Frittatas can make a quick supper. Recipe reprinted with permission from Home for Dinner by Dr. Anne Fishel
ResourcesHome for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids by Anne K. Fishel (American Management Association, 2015)
Food, Fun and Conversation: 4 Weeks to Better Family Dinners(free online program).
More ideas for quick meals: Food Bloggers of Canada “On Board in 20” recipe series.