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Written by:  Karen M. Alley
Date: September 1, 2009

School has started, and so has everything else. For many families, the idea of trying to get everyone to sit down to dinner together at the same time is as unimaginable as aliens or ghosts. Between taking the kids to sports practice and games, getting to music lessons, working late and even just picking up the baby at daycare every night, it’s hard to get home in time to fix dinner, let alone eat together.

But there’s no denying the importance of trying. Over and over again, in different studies, research has shown the benefits of families eating together.

Sitting down to dinner three to five times a week can do everything from help curb eating disorders to improve kids grades and even cut down on substance abuse.

Eating better, healthier

One benefit of eating at home that’s hard to ignore: it’s better for you. A couple of nights of home-cooked food instead of fast food in the drive-thru or ordering pizza will do wonders for your own body image, as well as your kids’.

Families who eat at home tend to eat more fruits and vegetables. And preparing the meal together is a great way to entice your kids to eat those veggies that they often shun.

Modeling healthy eating habits is one way to help curb childhood obesity and eating disorders. Kids imitate their parents, even during those trying tween and teen years. So make a point to plan healthy meals when possible and eat appropriate servings yourself.

I can still remember my mom adding wheat germ to the biscuits back in the late ’70s. To this day I don’t really know what wheat germ was supposed to do. But what it taught me was that she cared about our nutrition, enough to do research and try new things in a quest to make us healthier. 

Encourage conversation by sitting down together

Family dinners don’t have to be elaborate meals. Is it really eating pot roast and mashed potatoes that helps kids stand up to peer pressure and say no to drugs?

Researchers delved into family dynamics research, and David Dickinson of Vanderbilt University found some interesting results.

In a study to find out what helps make some kids early readers, they found conversation during meal time is a stronger indicator of early literacy than reading together. So maybe those Stouffer’s commercials have a point, where they tout the “family dinner” around a heated-up lasagna.

Spend your time getting the family’s schedule to sync up rather than cooking all afternoon. Then when you all sit down together, you’ll be able to enjoy a good conversation instead of being wiped out from all the work of cooking. It’s a great time to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Talking about your own day, and your family’s experiences, is a great way to stay connected, share your values and even have some fun together.

Make it happen

One important aspect of instituting family dinners is planning. Figure out which nights during the week you can get everyone together at the same time. It might take investing in one of those dry-erase calendars or a bulletin board list.

Planning the meal is also important. If you happen to make a once-weekly trip to the store, figuring out your meal ideas ahead of time will not only make dinner time more efficient when it comes time for preparation, it will also help you save money at the grocery store.

And of course, the only way to get more fruits and vegetables into your kids’ stomachs is to make sure you have them at home to serve. The key is to make it quick and easy. Stouffer’s lasagna and Hamburger Helper are some great starting points!

Members of Triadmommies also offered some suggestions:

- Jen’s school-night supper standby is sloppy joes.
-  Heather also likes sloppy joes as well as tacos or shepherd’s pie. She suggests cooking twice the amount of ground beef one night, then use it for two night’s worth of meals.
- Crockpot meals are another time-saving way to have a good dinner. Throw a bunch of ingredients in the pot before work or school, and come home to a house full of good smells at the end of the day.

Here are a few sites with some good ideas to try:

- SouthernFood.About.Com: Top 30 crock pot recipes http://southernfood.about.com/od/crockpotrecipes/a/top_crockpot.htm 
= Campbell’s Kitchen: http://www.campbellskitchen.com
- Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals: Not all are easily made in 30 minutes, but some are! http://www.rachaelraymag.com/Recipes/Rachael-Ray-Magazine-Recipes/rachael-ray-30-minute-meals
- AllRecipes.com: Quick Dinners http://allrecipes.com/HowTo/Quick-Dinners/Detail.aspx

So get a new family tradition started at your house this school year. Set aside a few nights a week for dinner together, and if nothing else, your family will become closer.

Karen M. Alley is Web Editor at Piedmont Parent Magazine, a sister publication of Carolina Parent.



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