Make Family Dinner a Healthy Habit in 2012

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January 27, 2012 at 2:25 pm

purple asparagus dinner

January’s nearing to a close, which is good time to reassess the resolutions of the New Year. Did you lose 5 pounds? Have you exercised daily? Don’t worry, neither did I.

There is one resolution that if you didn’t make, it’s a good one to adopt now: making family dinner a regular habit.

Statistics show that children who share a meal regularly with their families do better in school and have a better relationship with their parents. We all have to eat, so let’s do it together.

I may not have any advice about dieting or exercise, but this is one resolution that I can help with.

Until last year, Purple Asparagus’ mission was to bring families back to the table. With our burgeoning work in the schools (more than 22 and rising), we revised our mission in 2011 to educating children, families, and the community about eating that’s good for the body and the planet. Believe you me, with the number of parent cooking classes I teach, I still have some tips, five in fact, about how to make family dinner 2012’s healthy habit.

1. Be flexible: The greatest enemy to the family dinner is the unrelenting devotion to the clock. Dinner in my house may at 5:30, it might be at 7:30; it all depends upon our schedules, individual and collective. If my son doesn’t get a bath that night, so be it, I’d rather have that half hour for our family to reconnect at the end of the day.
2. Embrace convenience: Don’t be ashamed to use convenience foods. While I know many a food snob that will turn a nose up at the idea of prepared cereals or a tub of hummus. I’m not one of them. Even though I often prepare bread or pasta from scratch, these are weekend activities, not a project to undertake when I’m trying to get dinner on the table after a long day at work. When there are so many wonderful food artisans creating nutritious products with top quality and locally sourced ingredients, there’s no shame in incorporating them into your weekly routine.
3. Upcycle your leftovers: Leftovers, whether from my own kitchen or a restaurant meal, are in regular rotation in my kitchen. Not just meat scraps, like beef or chicken strips that can be laid onto salads or rolled into wraps, but everything. For example, transform your mashed potatoes into a tart crust. Cold rice can be folded with a lemony dressing and garnished with oil-cured tuna. Both her and on my personal blog Little Locavores, I detail these tricks and many more make short work of dinner.
4. Make a plan: Don’t just make a shopping list before entering a grocery or visiting a farmers’ market, but also a plan. Wine Braised Pot Roast served with roasted vegetables can on the day after be a delicious topping for whole grain pasta. Making meatloaf, double the recipe and stuff half into peppers. If you’re not used to this type of cooking, there are lots of terrific resources for meal planning, including The Scramble and Feed Our Families. About two years ago, I ran a few of these meal plans on Little Locavores, including my own.
5. One of the best pieces of advice about family dinner came from a powerful women partner at my former firm. While she was a terrific cook, she freely admitted that she wasn’t always the one cooking for her family. What was more important to her was that the family ate together. If the meal was at a restaurant or from the take-out section of Whole Foods, it was still family dinner. I wasn’t ready to hear the advice when she gave it, only a month after my son was born, and it likely hastened my departure from my Big Law job. Nowadays, I get it. Restaurant dinners and healthy take out are also among the tools at my disposal to get family dinner on the table.

To make this last tip even easier to follow, there’s a brand new initiative taking place at many Chicago restaurants: Healthy Fare for Kids. Spearheaded by Chef Sarah Stegner (a mom herself), Alderman Michele Smith, and former public health profession Diane Schmidt, the program is committed to providing parents with healthy options for their children at restaurants. The restaurants participating in the program will offer at least one delicious and healthy meal for kids on their menus.

Healthy Fare for Kids provided guidelines to chefs, including limiting the bread on the table before the meal and instead providing fresh vegetables. It also asks restaurants to ensure some lean protein with the meal and to use whole grain breads and pasta. Other suggestions are to use cooking methods that are lower in fat, incorporating and local and seasonal products (a goal close to this Little Locavores’ heart), controlling portion size and serving no-sugar beverages and small, if any, desserts.

For more information about the initiative and to learn which restaurants are participating, visit the initative’s website or watch Chef Stegner be interviewed by the Fooditude kids.

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3 Comments

  1. I completely agree that family dinners (or any meal together) are vital for healthy family relationships, and a great investment in our families! Thanks so much for recommending The Six O’Clock Scramble (www.thescramble.com) for help with family dinner planning. I love making it easier, healthier and less stressful for families to get dinners on the table.

  2. Melissa says:

    Aviva,

    I meant to tell you. When I was recommending your site at a parent workshop this Saturday, one of the moms was already using it and had glowing compliments about it!

    Melissa

  3. Elaine Rietz says:

    Hi! I am Green Committee Chair at Alcott Elementary CPS School at 2625 N. Orchard (at Wrightwood) in Chicago. We are holding Planet Alcott Earth Week April 23-27 and I would LOVE if a rep from The Local Beet could come! We are having 2-3 tables outside each day after school starting at 2 and going until 3 or 3:30. I have a mom from Italy who does simple healthy cooking one day, offering Q & A for busy moms trying to cook healthy meals the kids will eat. We’ll have food coop and farmers market info. You’d fit in PERFECTLY! Please email me and let me know if you can come any day next week!

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