By Kristi Willis
Photography by Andy Sams
Sitting down for a family dinner is about more than food; it’s a precious ritual—a time to touch base, connect and share laughter and stories. Yet for many, eating in shifts or in front of the TV has become the norm, and those intimate moments for the family to engage are lost. Dinnertime is often when kids learn their family history and traditions, and where they build the trust that helps them make good choices when they’re away from their families.
A 2012 study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that when compared to teens who have family dinners five or more nights per week, teens who eat two or fewer meals with their families each week are almost three times more likely to say it’s okay for kids their age to use marijuana, and three and a half times more likely to say it’s okay for their peers to get drunk.
Families also eat better when they eat together. In a study at Baylor College of Medicine, doctors Karen Weber Cullen and Tom Baranowski discovered that fourth- to sixth-grade students who ate dinners with their families ate more fruits and vegetables and drank less soda than those who did not. Laurie David, coauthor of The Family Dinner, says, “Everything you worry about as a parent is improved by the number of nights you eat together as a family.” And the practice of family dinners doesn’t have to be difficult. David suggests families start by picking one night of the week and keeping it simple—make a pot of soup and a salad, or even serve takeout—as long as the family is eating together. Then expand to other nights. “What you want is for everyone to come together, eat and have a good time. The key to the whole thing is talking.” David offers these additional suggestions for making the most of family meals:
Make dinner an electronic-free zone. Turn off all phones, televisions, computers and other electronics and leave them in the other room. Give everyone permission to call out anyone who breaks the rule.
Try new foods. Each week, try something new to help expand everyone’s culinary horizons, even if it’s simply a new preparation of a familiar food. If the kids love cucumbers, make cucumber noodles. Try chicken or steak grilled on a kebab instead of whole. Have everyone commit to at least trying a new food even if they don’t finish it.
Involve the kids in preparing the meal. Whether the kids are setting the table, peeling vegetables or toasting bread, meals will be more meaningful if they get to contribute and participate rather than just show up to eat.
Create interactive meals. David includes a section of assembly-required recipes in which everyone gets to finish off their own tacos, pasta or soup with their favorite ingredients. These hands-on meals let kids pick the ingredients they like, while also making it easy for them to experiment with new foods if they’re feeling adventurous.
Start talking. Use dinnertime to explore and share new ideas rather than just rehash the day’s events. Pick topics that encourage lively conversation and even spark debate. David posts a “Table Talk” topic to the Huffington Post Parents website (huffingtonpost.com/parents) every Friday suggesting subjects guaranteed to get the discussion flowing.
Involve extended family members and friends. Children learn how to entertain and engage guests at shared family meals where everyone is on their best behavior and enjoying one another’s company. Encourage the kids to invite their friends to dinner so that you can get to know them better.
Make it fun. Make a picnic on the floor or in the yard, use the good china on sandwich night or light a candle to change the ambience. Small flourishes can make the entire experience more special and take the drudgery out of what can seem like a chore.
“We take for granted what happens at the table,” says David. “You don’t just get your proteins and your nutrition. Your kids will learn vocabulary words, they will learn how to debate and discuss and how to listen. They learn portion control, how to take turns and manners. They learn a whole host of things.”
There is no wrong way to create the special memories of family dinner. Sharing a meal builds a solid foundation for everyone—both at the table and during the challenges of daily life.
EASY CHEESY DINNER FRITTATA
Courtesy of Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt of The Family Dinner
Eggs for dinner! Or lunch, or a brunch by the sea. You crack a bunch of eggs and cook them with some filling. I say asparagus, potatoes and cheese, but you can say anything you please—maybe tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto, maybe corn and peas.
For the frittata:
8 organic, free-range eggs
2 T. grated Parmesan cheese
¼ t. salt and a pinch of pepper
For the filling:
2 T. butter or olive oil
2 T. diced red onions
½ c. diced potatoes
½ c. chopped asparagus
½ c. cubed mozzarella, Gruyère or Fontina
1 T. chopped soft herbs like basil, dill or parsley
Preheat the oven to its broil setting. In a medium-size bowl, using a fork, whisk together the eggs, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
Heat a medium-size, nonstick, oven-safe pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the onion, potatoes, and asparagus to the pan and sauté for 8 minutes or until the potatoes are soft.
Pour the eggs into the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir with a rubber spatula once. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the egg mixture is starting to set (thicken). Top with the mozzarella cubes.
Place the pan into the oven and broil for 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned and fluffy. Remove from the pan and cut into wedges. Garnish with herbs.