There’s no doubt about it. Preparing and eating meals together as a family are two of the most important steps you can take toward ensuring good health for your kids. Scientific studies show that children who frequently eat meals at home with their families tend to enjoy more fruits and vegetables, eat less junk food, have a lower risk of obesity and diabetes, and are even less likely as teens to abuse drugs or alcohol. Finding the time to cook for (and with) your family can be challenging, but with a little planning and some expert help, even the busiest of families can enjoy the benefits of home-cooked meals.
Making family meals a priority is likely the first and most important step to take. As Lynn Fredericks and Mercedes Sanchez, MS, RD, note in their book, Get Your Family Eating Right, ‘Family dinners cooked at home are challenging for over-scheduled families. However, the benefits of sharing meals justify the effort and give you an incentive to find the time. It’s a matter of priorities, just like finding time to teach your children hygiene, the alphabet, or numbers’.
Fredericks and Sanchez are experts at teaching families how to cook and enjoy worldwide flavors and cuisines. Through their non-profit organization, FamilyCook Productions, they provide food-focused nutrition education in schools and communities across the country. In Get Your Family Eating Right, Fredericks and Sanchez draw on decades of experience and provide a 30-day plan to get you and your family in the kitchen more often. They also share helpful strategies for managing time, budgets and picky eaters, as well as simple, delicious, kid-tested recipes. You can check out one of their recipes and don’t forget to check out the video, where friends Julie and Lily join Rita Carey Rubin, the host of Your Healthy Kitchen, and have fun preparing a big bowl of pasta, a beautiful salad, and some of Julie’s favorite homemade lemony Parmesan dressing!
To get started in your own kitchen, Fredericks and Sanchez offer the following advice:
- First, kindle your own love of food and prepare some favorite meals at home. Kids learn by watching the behaviors of their most important adults, and your enthusiasm for preparing and eating home-cooked meals will pique your child’s curiosity to try something new.
- Consider your family’s schedule and plot out a plan. What are the best days to schedule family meals? If you are just learning to cook at home, make it easy on yourself and choose days that are not too busy.
- Change your perspective about ‘kid’s food’. In American culture, we have learned to think that kids like only mac and cheese, pizza, and chicken nuggets. But, in reality, when introduced to a world of flavors, colors and cuisines in positive and interactive ways, kids will get really excited about healthy and creative home-cooked food.
- Clear out clutter and turn your kitchen a pleasant and inviting space. Step stools for small children, music, and a clear, open counter will make it easy and fun for kids to help you chop, taste, and stir.
- Include your children in meal preparation, even if it is just slicing one vegetable or trimming the leaves off sprigs of herbs and adding them to the pot. Kids will get used to the rhythm of the kitchen and will get excited about making a legitimate contribution to the meal.
- Let go of perfection. This is cooking at home with your family. Onions don’t need to be perfectly diced and if a child throws in a bit more herbs or flavoring than a recipe states – relax. It will still taste great and your kids will be excited about whatever you prepare.
- Establish some mealtime rituals like setting the table with cloth napkins, lighting candles, waiting for everyone to be seated before eating, and expressing gratitude for the meal. Rituals will turn mealtime into a special and important ‘family time’ that you and your kids will look forward to and love.
Most importantly, have fun making cooking time family time. Ask your kids to help plan menus, shop, and set the table. Once they get used to the routine and ritual of preparing and enjoying family meals, your children will begin to look forward to this important part of the day. And so will you.