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Photographed by Maria Del Rio

The Importance of Family Dinner—Plus, 5 Moms Share Their Routines

Written by Sara Langer

Photography by Rati Sahi and Family, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

Getting every member of your family to sit down at the table at the same time can be a challenge for parents today. The number of households with two working parents or single-working parents is on the rise and the time to prepare meals and the windows of opportunity when everyone is home can be scarce for most families. Add to that, the distraction of devices and technology and the growing amount of homework for young children, family dinner can easily be brushed aside. Even so, according to a study from Columbia University, 59% of families surveyed eat dinner as a family at least three times a week, up from 47% in a similar survey in 1998. And there is a significant amount of research touting the benefits of eating together as a family. According to multiple organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who share at least three family dinners a week are less likely to be overweight, more likely to eat healthy food, and perform better academically. Teens who eat dinner with their parents regularly are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity) and report having strong relationships with their parents.

Creating the time and space to sit together as a family and partake in the ritual of sharing a meal can help relieve stress from work or school and it gives your family a chance to connect, regroup, share, and reflect. Having a routine or a plan for family dinner will help you succeed in bringing your crew together at the end of the day. With that in mind, we turned to a handful of mothers (who also happen to be foodie stars) to share their routines and tips for family dinners in hopes of inspiring others to come together, disconnect from technology, and connect with one another over a warm plate of food.

Tracy Benjamin, Food Photographer, Stylist, and Blogger, Shutterbean
“We are super busy with baseball at this stage of my son’s life so I am always trying to figure out how to get dinner on the table so we aren’t eating on the go. When we have dinners out, not only does it cost extra money, but the time it takes to complete a dinner at a restaurant prevents us from finishing homework and throws off our bedtime routine. On Sunday nights, I’ll try to make a few things ahead of time with a round of meal prep (follow #shutterbeanmealprep on Instagram!). Doing work ahead of time means you need less time to make dinner. You’ll have no excuses to not have salads and healthy snacks if you spend a few minutes washing and cutting up vegetables for the week. Cooking things thing like rice or pasta in bulk on Sundays (or whatever day works best for you) can make weeknight cooking a snap. Leftovers can become fried rice or pre-cooked pasta can turn into fancy dinner with browned meat and marinara sauce. The key is to find dinners that don’t require a lot of time and fortify them with healthy options to make a well rounded meal. All you have to do is pay attention to how much time things take and how well your meal was received. Then you can build a weekly meal arsenal from there! Give yourself the break you need by doing as much as possible ahead of time.”
Learn more about Tracy’s meal prep strategies in the August Issue of Better Homes and Gardens.

Catherine McCord, Founder of Weelicious and One Potato
“Family dinner is everything to me as mother, just as it was to me as a kid. Growing up, my mother made dinner six nights a week. It was a quiet time for our family to reconnect after a busy day. I continue this tradition with our family of five. I love including my kids in the cooking process so they not only learn to cook, but also learn to love a variety of foods. Three nights a week we use One Potato. I let them do everything from picking the meals we will eat, to cooking, tasting, and even cleaning. The other three nights a week that we cook we start by shopping our local farmers market, picking foods the kids want to try, and then plan menus around them. My son is a vegetarian, so I try to make very DIY-based meals (like a grain-based bowl or tacos), so we can all enjoy meals in our own way. It’s just as easy for me, but a lot more fun for the kids as they have a more active part of the process cooking and eating!”

Alyssa Brantley, Founder and Blogger, Everyday Maven
“We try to eat dinner together at least 4 to 5 nights a week. No electronic devices, books, or other distractions at the table and no TV on in the background. A huge part of gathering for family dinner is setting a good example for the kids to eat fresh vegetables and try different foods. One of our family rules is ‘You don’t have to eat it, you have to taste it.’ If you like it, take some. If not, move on and try it again in the future. This helps take the pressure off eating foods they might not like and focuses on just tasting. We always try to remind the kids that tastes change as we change and evolve and that is why we keep tasting the same things over and over again. Fresh vegetables are always on the table and I try to keep it simple. Salad doesn’t have to have 15 ingredients. It can be as simple as Spring Mix and dressing. And, that is easy enough that one of the kids can prepare it. If the cooked vegetables aren’t appealing to them (texture, taste, etc.), I’ll grab some raw vegetables (baby carrots, Persian cucumbers, sweet bell peppers, etc.) and give them that option. Keeping those on hand at all times helps us make sure that the kids choose a vegetable that they will eat instead of forcing them to eat something that they don’t like.”

Sri Bodanapu, Nutritionist, Herb Seed Spice
“Food is a big part of my cultural identity and most of my favorite childhood memories are around meal times with my family. I grew around my grandmother and mother being obsessed with food and their entire day revolving around the next meal. We were served fresh meals three times a day and I’ve inherited that same love for cooking on a daily basis. I am a nutritionist and constantly try to find a balance between what’s good for my family versus the reality of what my two and a half year old will actually eat. I mostly cook Indian food since it’s the the strongest connection my son has to our culture. Breakfast is our favorite meal of the day since he gets to pick what he wants to eat (ranges from avocado toast to a veggie + fruit smoothie or scrambled eggs) and given it’s the first meal of the day, it’s an easy one to feed! Dinner is the only meal where our entire family eats together so we try and make it a routine every night. My son loves spicy rice dishes, fermented lentil crepes and most vegetables sautéed with some seeds and spices. Giving him a combination of things he likes along with something new to try every couple of days helps us get through mealtimes somewhat successfully. I think I’m passing on my love for food since his favorite activity at school is a weekly cooking class!”

Ashley Koch, Nutritionist and Family Health Coach, Vibrantly Healthy Kids
“Regular family dinners was a shared childhood tradition for myself and my partner and it came naturally to us as parents. Healthy food is a way of life for us and eating together allows that to take center stage. I tell families whose schedules do not allow regular family dinners to find creative times to sit down as a family for meal. This could mean a breakfast or a Sunday family dinner, all of these allow opportunities for connections and modeling great eating habits. We have a zero technology and toy rule at meal time, it removes the distractions. Dinner is usually from quick recipes, many of them live in my head. Most of the time it involves a little protein (wild salmon, quinoa, organic chicken), a few roasted or wok-fried vegetables, and possibly a quick salad. When there is a time-consuming cooking activity like vegetable preparation, I recruit the kids to help. We all eat the same dinner, so this keeps prep time to a minimum. Many of the vegetables are precut, for example when I bring home broccoli or cauliflower I cut them into smaller pieces before storing. With each meal, our family celebrates the soil, the water, the sun, the plants, the growers, the pickers, the grocers, the workers, the chef (often me and my girls), and the dish washer (often papa). We use each meal to show gratitude that a healthy meal is on our table and that we have the opportunity to eat it all together. It is truly a privilege that I hope they never take for granted.”

Like these family food tips? With back-to-school around the corner, make sure you also check out our article on 6 Easy & Nutritious School Lunches.

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