The Family Dinner

I must be living in a bubble – the other day I stopped by TerryBreathingGrace  and read her blog and comments on What’s Cooking?  and it was a revelation.  I was a little late; she posted in January…but I was very glad I’d stopped by.

She linked to an article by Dr. Mark Hyman about the family dinner, and I was shocked to my core at the information he gave.  Here’s a little appetizer:  “The slow insidious displacement of home cooked and communally shared family meals by the industrial food system has fattened our nation and weakened our family ties. In 1900, 2 percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home and one in five breakfasts is from McDonald’s. Most family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwaved “food.”

Now, I knew some of this was going on, and when my kids hit their teens, family dinner became a huge struggle for us…I had to lay down the law that we would eat as a family as much as possible (which sometimes wasn’t possible given schedules) and I instituted “Family Night,” as well.  A time when we did something together without distractions, telephone conversation, drifting off to friend’s houses or to bedrooms.

I’ve read laments from two parent households on this subject, from stay at home moms and from single parent households about how difficult it can be to eat together and find time as a family – the struggle seems to be universal in our society.  Can we really blame fast food?  I’m not sure…maybe we don’t really need to blame anything but just begin to prioritize our lives a little differently.

It’s important, for so many reasons, to eat together as a family.  I could immediately cite ‘frugality’ as an issue here, and I’d be correct.  Not only is it generally more frugal to have a meal at home (a pot roast dinner, on the table for $10.00 or so is less than the price of most mad drive through pickups) , the health effects of better foods and the socialization and strengthening of family ties help to prevent so many devastating diseases and issues.  Need I mention heart disease, obesity, diabetes, drug addiction, social and behavioral disorders?

We’ve certainly struggled, like many families with our share of issues.  Did the family meal prevent any or lessen the impact of some of these?  I’d like to think so.

Dr. Hyman mentioned some ideas on how to implement family meals; here are a few things that helped us eat together:

First of all, I think it might, perhaps, be a distinctly American idea that we must have hot food for dinner and a hold over attitude from previous generations that we have “3 square meals” a day.  It’s my opinion that sometimes as parents, we think it better, faster or easier to grab fast food for breakfast than have a bowl of cereal or even better, oatmeal; better, faster or easier to grab the kids a happy meal than serve something simple or cold.

I can guarantee that I can whip together something for dinner faster than most people can drive through the drive-through line in rush hour.  Use your kids as sous chefs and clean up help.  It’s going to cheaper and better.  Here’s a few ideas, several that came about as a result of dealing with commuting, picking up kids from daycare and trying to get to our many evening activities, without resorting to stopping at Mickeydees, and sometimes without resorting to stopping at home!

  • Hor dourves night:  A spread of cheese and crackers, perhaps a nice summer sausage isn’t going to hurt now and then.  It certainly can’t be any worse than fast foods, and you can serve a nice juice or add sliced pears or apples or a simple salad to health it up a bit.  Have your kids get involved making ants on a log or tortilla roll ups.
  • Smorgasbord night:  Stop at home for a quick meal made from your leftovers.  Everyone gets to choose their favorites from the previous week.
  • Sandwiches:  Try to think beyond PB & J, or even go back to some of the old-fashioned ones like egg salad, chicken salad or a really good tuna salad.  I really like adding celery and sliced grapes to chicken salad, celery and onion to egg, and celery, onion and cheese to tuna.  Whip something up in the morning or  the night before so it will be ready, and use a good bread.  Get the kids involved in an assembly line.  Eat at home or take with.
  • Picnics:  We’ve not only gone to parks with picnics, we’ve also traveled to events with picnics.  Maybe it’s a particularly old-fashioned thing to do, but you can have everything ready in the fridge to grab and go when you pick up the kids and get home from work – drive to or to a park near your event, spread a blanket and eat.  If you plan very well, you may be able to put everything in a cooler in your car in the morning and avoid the trip home.
  • Crock Pot Meals:  There are umpteen cookbooks, websites and blogs out there with some great recipes.  I’m not certain why you seldom see chef’s on TV mention crock pots, because what they do, they do so well.  Find a few ‘go to’ recipes your family likes and have dinner on the table when you get home.
  • Salad Bar:  Stop on the way and pick up a salad bar at a grocery store or try their delis. Avoid the fried and processed foods.  You’ll find a plethora of veggies and several soups; here again, you can stop at a park and eat.
  • Prep Ahead:  This has saved me over an over when trying to get a dinner on quickly.  Sometimes I’ll make whole meals ahead, sometimes a partial meal.  Here’s an example:  If I’m making chili one night, I’ll brown up enough hamburger and make sloppy joes for the next night.  I may even throw in an extra pound of ground beef and put that in a container for a casserole later in the week.  I do this so often that it’s become second nature for me whether freezing ahead or even slicing a bell pepper for a salad and slicing enough the next for dinner two days later.

Make mealtime pleasant and special.  Revere the family and the food.  Say a grace or take a moment to be thankful you are with the ones you love.

Avoid bickering and unpleasant conversation; cite the digestive value if nothing else.  Be the person you’d like others to be around and the kids will follow your lead.  Trot out some of the same charm you use on others for your family; engage them in conversation and really get to know them – they’ll surprise you every time.

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