Although Wally and the Beaver might have rather been playing baseball, Ward and June insisted that their rambunctious sons come inside at dinnertime to share a meal and talk about the events of the day.
The image is as comforting as casserole – and seems as archaic as vacuuming in pearls. But it needn’t be. Recent studies indicate that children and adolescents who share family meals at least three times per week are more likely to be a healthy weight, more emotionally content and more academically successful.
But wait a minute, it’s not fair to dump that kind of guilt trip on modern parents, is it? What if June Cleaver had to work a full-time job outside the home? What if Ward had been a single dad?
Today’s busier and differently configured households need not sacrifice the benefits of family meals, say experts. In fact, by combining family togetherness with good nutritional practices, it is possible to actually improve on the Cleaver example, since June’s boys led a considerably more active lifestyle than her great-grandchildren – yes, great-grandchildren – might.
The key is to start simple, says Jamie Cassell, a registered and licensed dietitian at St. Luke’s Hospital. “Don’t feel you have to go whole hog right at first,” Cassell cautions. “All those good intentions won’t last very long if you set yourself up for failure.”
Many people will be tempted to purchase a pantry of new foods – the proverbial treadmill that becomes a clothing rack – so Cassell suggests starting with what is already in the house. “You can make a fun meal that’s high in fiber and protein by fixing breakfast for dinner,” she says. Think veggie omelets, wheat toast and fresh fruit.
For many families, it is simply not possible to always eat dinner together. Set realistic expectations based on everyone’s schedules. “Cut yourself some slack if some meals are eaten on the go,” Cassell adds. “Try for two or three meals a week and build from there.”
Next, plan what those meals are going to be. Because you may be making different selections than you are accustomed to, it is important to go to the grocery store with a clear idea of what you need, Cassell notes. When buying staples, choose whole grains, dairy products made with skim milk and leaner cuts of meat. These simple substitutions will enable favorite recipes and comfort foods – to which families often turn when sitting down together feels like a special occasion – to survive the transition.
“Cooking from scratch can seem really daunting, especially when you’ve just made this big change,” Cassell acknowledges. She advocates a “cook once, eat twice” approach. “If you’re grilling two chicken breasts for tonight, grill two more to slice up and put in tomorrow’s fajitas.”
In addition to cutting down on prep time, cooking in batches allows for easy portion control by divvying a dish into containers for individual servings. “That helps you plan ahead, plus if you know that’s waiting for you in the fridge, it’s easier to not swing into the drive-thru on those busy days,” Cassell says.
But how to help kids with picky palates adjust to the new foods before them? Lauren Landfried, an instructor in St. Louis University’s department of nutrition and dietetics, also directs a children’s culinary camp where she gets a glimpse of the challenges many parents face on a daily basis.
“A new food can cause so much apprehension, sometimes to the point of phobia,” Landfried explains. “But when kids are given a leadership role, they’re better able to demystify it.”
Beyond helping to stir or chop, Landfried suggests that parents allow children to pick a food that interests them, and then build a meal around it. “Maybe they’ll pick eggplant because they like purple, or a kind of fish because it has an interesting name,” she says. “If they feel some ownership of what’s on their plate, they’ll be more willing to try it.”
It is the job of parents to be positive role models, but kids need not feel alone. Landfried encourages adults to “Let them know if something is new for you, too. This is a family goal you’re all trying to reach together.”
But if these efforts are still met with crossed arms and clenched jaws, there are other options. A familiar dish like spaghetti can be enhanced by adding more vegetables or even beans to the sauce. Landfried admits that it’s not only kids who may require such subterfuge, but the big kid seated at the other head of the table, too. Also, even if the frequency with which you can actually share meals is limited, you can still increase family interaction by viewing them as a process involving considerably more than just consumption. For example, family trips to the grocery store can be simple but memorable outings – as can cooking together. Lay out a spread of meats and veggies for everyone to build individual pizzas (on pita bread with olive oil) or quesadillas (whole wheat tortillas and low-fat cheese).
So, even if you can’t gather for a family meal every night, doing so a few nights a week still is well worth the effort. And if those family meals also are collaborative explorations of healthy eating, you may even go June Cleaver one better.
HEALTHY EATING RESOURCES
Choose My Plate – choosemyplate.gov
Meal plans, nutrition trackers, and other tips and tools from the USDA.
Fooducate – fooducate.com, iPhone & Android (free)
Grades foods from A to D based on nutritional info and ingredients. Features UPC scanner for smart shopping.
Healthy in a Hurry – iPhone (free)
Professionally written and tested recipes, searchable by cuisine, course or ingredient.
Kids Eat Right – kidseatright.org
Info and ideas for each stage of child development from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
More Matters – morematters.org
Expert cooking advice, nutrition information, and shopping tips for incorporating fruits and vegetables into your diet.