Dear Dr. Debbie,
My childhood memories include dinner with the family. This tapered off by high school with me and my siblings scattering to sports, theater rehearsals, and even part-time jobs. My husband and I still have little ones, ages 3 and 5, but he and I often divide evening duties between us around weird work schedules.
How hard should we be trying to establish a dinner time routine that includes everyone in the family?
Eat And Run
When the family gathers around the table children learn that nourishment and nurturing can be served up at the same time.
One important benefit of a family meal is the verbal interaction. Parents set the tone for everyone to treat one another with interest and concern as bodies are nourished and familial bonds are nurtured. Even if only one parent is there, you can be a good model of listening and asking good questions about the highlights of each family member’s day. Your youngest can be prompted to speak if you start with the headline, as in, “Peter, your class had a field trip to the pumpkin farm today” or, “Harper, tell us about the book you brought home from the library”.
If you can’t quite set regular dinner times for meeting this need, you might find other times to connect as a foursome, perhaps swapping Family Dinner for Family Breakfast on certain days. Or become the family that takes a Family Walk several times a week, or spends extended time in the kitchen together – whenever you have a good chunk of time with everyone available.
Even at three-years-old, a young child can participate in getting the food on the table. Simple cooking tasks include: ripping lettuce leaves for the salad, counting enough potatoes to be baked, or pouring the box of soup into the pot. Even a toddler can be tasked with putting wrappers and empty containers in the proper recycling bin and carrying plant scraps and egg shells to the compost bucket.
There are lifelong benefits from participating in the process of preparing food. You can teach cooking vocabulary and cooking skills, such as whisking (eggs and other ingredients for a quiche), shredding (mozzarella for the pizza), dissolving (unflavored gelatin for fruit juice gelatin), drizzling (mustard on top of the meatloaf), or layering (noodles, sauce, and cheese for lasagna!).
Your children will become competent chefs in no time, experiencing the pride that comes from contributing to the meal.
One nice thing about whipping up food for young children is that they are happy to see the same foods repeated throughout the week. Your table talk can include discussing the food in front of you, especially as you learn each other’s preferences. Strive to create family favorites that cover the basics of nutrition as well as appeal.
Vegetables: eat the “rainbow” from red pepper slices, raw carrots, squishy summer squash, cucumber spears, frozen peas (still frozen), blue potatoes, to purple cabbage in the coleslaw. Or focus on variety of textures with cubed veggies in your soup.
Protein: lean meats are more nutritious – fish and poultry can be cut up and coated with whole grains to simulate not-as-nutritious fast food versions. Eggs, nuts, seeds, and dairy products also count as protein.
Whole Grains: read the label to be sure you’re not overloading on white flour. Children may prefer simple, unseasoned brown rice, quinoa, kasha, and or polenta.
Fruit: fresh is best if locally grown, but you can also enjoy frozen fruits from around the world year-round. Little ones prefer smaller pieces, so cut apples and other fruits to fit their small mouths.
The customary foods that will remind your children of family probably include some dishes that have been passed down through the generations. For me, it’s wide noodles. My great grandmother (whom I never met) rolled out dough, cut strips, and hung the noodles to dry on a regular basis in my mother’s childhood kitchen. My siblings and I heard these stories often as Mom cooked and served kugels or the very simple staple of Cottage Cheese and Noodles for us as we gradually learned to make these for ourselves. After a four-generation gap, my granddaughter and I shaped our own pasta together one evening, and she got to hear about long ago noodle-making. We connected to family kitchens in the “old country” going back hundreds of years.
What recipes, or ready-to-eat foods will your children claim as connection to family kitchens of the past?
In addition to building great memories in the kitchen and around the table, family dinner time is also good for psychological well-being and long-term health. A recent survey by the American Heart Association cites family meals as an important antidote to stress. Parents reported “lower levels of stress among their family when they regularly connect over a meal”. Lowering the risk for heart disease and stroke is as simple as daily sit-downs with the people you love over a satisfying meal.
As the body is refueled, the heart is re-filled with love.
If you set a goal around increasing the number of times the family eats together, the benefits will have everyone coming back for more.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting a series of Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays (except Oct. 31), 7-9 pm, through November 14.
The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.