When I think about some of the most memorable and fun times over the past few months, I smile remembering the birthday dinner preparation with my niece and sister-in-law, the dinner and conversation around our table with long-time friends, the fishing experience with my great nephew, and meals with our Colorado friends. Regardless of the occasion, there was always laughter, lots of conversation and most of all, the enjoyment of food. There was no guilt about eating the Baked Alaska or questioning whether our food had a certain label. Some food items were locally grown, others were not, but more importantly, we connected at the table, eating together and sharing.
Back to Meal Time
Over the past several months, we have explored stories ranging from sustainability to water usage and the farm to fork connect (or sometimes disconnect). But perhaps the most important aspect of food – the art of enjoying and appreciating it around the table – has been missing. Even though blog ideas have risen from conversation with friends or family at the table OR even better, initiated conversations, we may be missing the obvious: how to get us “back to the table” for a meal.
September is National Family Meals Month™, a nationwide event, created by the Food Marketing Institute Foundation to support families in enjoying more meals together. Whether we’re a family of 2, 4 or 8, making time to eat together is never easy, but the health and social benefits associated with eating together are well validated. So how do we make time?
Tips for Success
I reached out to fellow registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN), moms and family meal experts for tips. Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, author, blogger and author of the podcast Liz’s Healthy Table states “I’m a big believer in the power of family meals. While there are many barriers to gathering families around the table – busy schedules, lack of time to plan and prepare meals, distractions like the TV and cell phones, and picky eaters – there are plenty of doable and delicious strategies for making shared family meals a reality.”
Liz, along with Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, The Guilt-Free RD® and Sylvia Klinger, DBA, MS, RD, owner of Hispanic Food Communications, all agree there are three main elements: plan ahead, make the meal simple and make it a family affair. As Liz states, “Not everyone was born with the ‘organized’ gene, but planning meals ahead of time can prevent the last-minute panic at 5 p.m. when kids are famished and parents haven’t thought about dinner yet.” Melissa adds, “Look at your schedule each week and determine when you can plan on cooking and sitting down together to eat. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Keep it simple by balancing your plate/meals out with a lean protein, vegetables and a fiber-rich grain.”
Liz also recommends doing all grocery shopping on a weekend morning “before the market gets busy and then spend a weekend afternoon prepping ingredient for the busy week ahead.” To make meals a family affair (and engage picky eaters) Liz suggests assigning mealtime roles. “When children are allowed to pick and choose recipes, slice and dice ingredients, and set the table with colorful plates and napkins, they’re more likely to taste their new creations,” she noted. (This can apply to adults as well!)
The Art of Conversation
And what is the most important part of family meals according to all of them? Enjoy the food and conversations! Liz says, “Family meals give children an opportunity to have conversations with adults and pick up on how adults use words with each other. Thus, family dinnertime helps build a child’s vocabulary.” Melissa also suggests asking questions like, “What is your favorite memory/book/movie/teacher and why” can “jump start some fun table talk.”
Most importantly, Sylvia adds, is to “Keep positive conversations around the table so the family wants to come back.”
Sounds easy, but can we really have scheduled family meals? Friend and father of six, Ben Hoak, confirms it’s possible. “No big secret to success other than knowing that sometimes it’s just not going to happen and that’s okay and you’ll try again tomorrow. You just have to want to do it.” As to the benefits, Ben says, “Your kids learn that family is important. We get to hear about their day, what’s going on in their life. Each have responsibilities and learn from each other to try new foods, that you don’t always get what you want, and that sometimes you get ice cream.”
Connecting the Farm to Plate
When it comes to connecting “farm to plate,” Sylvia says dinner conversations can help connect the dots, whether reflecting on a trip to an orchard or farmer’s market, grocery shopping or a book about farming or a food issue. It’s good to have conversations about food but keep in mind that “all foods can fit into a healthy diet,” she says.
But with all the information and peer-sharing about what to buy, how do we avoid the guilt if those items aren’t on the table? “As the Guilt-Free RD® I don’t want anyone, parents especially, to feel guilty about not buying ‘vogue’ or special foods for their family. I want parents to know that they can rest assured that their food is safe and wholesome despite certain label claims that might suggest some foods are superior to others. There’s no difference in the nutrition or safety of any foods whether they are organic or conventional, non-GMO, cage-free or no antibiotics/hormones,” Melissa says. In fact, many of these claims are misleading, such as labeling a food “non-GMO” when there is no GMO version of it, or saying “no antibiotics/hormones” when none of the other comparable products are allowed to have those either.”
Return to the Table
Planning ahead, making it simple and connecting with family and friends all sound compelling but can we make it happen at least once a week? Does it really matter? Perhaps Ben states it best, “It’s just a touchpoint for the kids and for us. No matter what else is going on in their lives and our lives, we all know we’ll be eating together. We just get to be together as a family.”
So “Raise Your Mitt to Commit.” Make the time to enjoy your food, family and friends and find out what each other are doing…beyond our virtual touchpoints. Create the conversation and lasting memories.
Thanks to Melissa Joy Dobbins, Liz Weiss and Sylvia Klinger for their insights. For more resources, check out their websites:
• Melissa Joy Dobbins MS, RDN, CDE – The Guilt-Free RD®. Host of the Sound Bites® Podcast and author of the free Do M.O.R.E. with Dinner resource kit.
• Sylvia E Klinger, DBA, MS, RD, CPT, Hispanic Food Communication and her book, The Little Book of Simple Eating.
• Liz Weiss, MS, RDN hosts Liz’s Healthy Table podcast and blog and is author of Color, Cook, Eat! coloring book series and the free 7-Day Meal Planner and Supermarket Shopping List.
• Benjamin Hoak, Dad of Six, Writer of Stories.