Sure, modern life is hectic, and that can make it a challenge for everyone in the family to sit down to dinner at the same time. But there’s more research than ever pointing to the benefits of sitting down with your kids at dinnertime. According to a study published recently in Pediatrics, sitting down to a family dinner together three or more times per week resulted in kids being 12 percent less likely to be overweight; there was also a 20 percent reduced chance of their developing eating disorders. More benefits? A 20 percent reduction in the odds of a child’s consuming junk food and a 24 percent increased chance family members will eat healthy food. The good news about family meals extends to children’s emotional health: Past studies have showed improved parent-teen communication as a result from family meals.
And it’s important for the entire family to sit down together — including Dad. According to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, it turns out that fathers actually have a stronger influence on their kids’ eating habits than mothers do. When researchers at Texas A&M University studied the dining-out habits of more than 300 families with children ages 9 to 11 and 13 to 15, they found that the more time dads spent eating out, the more likely their kids were to be eating out as well. There was no relationship between how often mothers dined out and how often their kids did. But if dads set a good example when it comes to eating, kids will follow suit, the study reveals. The researchers found that kids whose fathers placed greater importance on the ritual of family dinner were less likely to eat fast food.
And there are other reasons to plan some easy family dinners. Since dinner is the meal over which parents have the most control, it’s a great time to establish some healthy eating habits. Let your kids see what healthy portion sizes look like, include plenty of veggies and whole grains, and serve water or milk instead of sweetened drinks. Set an example by eating slowly, rather than scarfing dinner down, and take this opportunity to discuss what’s going on in everyone’s lives.
Since just getting everybody together for dinner can be a challenge in itself, don’t be a perfectionist when it comes to making the actual meal — everything doesn’t have to be homemade, or prepared fresh that very moment. For expert tips on making an easy family dinner on a hectic day, we turned to nutritionist (and mom) Karen Ansel, RD and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Here’s her advice:
1. Go for a combo of homemade and takeout. It's hard for busy parents to find the time to cook a homemade meal. Buying a roasted chicken and making your own quick-cooking rice and a spinach salad can be a huge time-saver.
2. Don't rule out takeout (at least not completely). Any family meal is better than none. If you don't have time to cook it yourself, order a pizza (minus the calorie-heavy toppings like sausage or pepperoni). Serve with a tossed salad. For guidance on picking healthy options, see "Eat This, Not That for Kids."
3. Think double. When you’re cooking, try to make double recipes of anything that you might be able to use later in the week. This could be meatballs for sandwiches, a double portion of rice, or a double pan of lasagna or stuffed shells. Also be sure to avoid food waste by saving and using leftovers in future recipes.
4. Don't frown on frozen. Parents frequently feel guilty about using frozen vegetables, but they shouldn't. Not only are frozen veggies quick and easy, but they can actually be nutritionally superior to fresh because they're flash-frozen within hours of picking, which locks in nutrients, whereas fresh produce may lose nutrients in transit and while sitting on store shelves. Buying frozen is also a great way to save money on organic produce.
5. Don't go it alone. Parents may not realize it, but they have their own force of little helpers right at their fingertips. Fifteen minutes before dinner, invite everyone into the kitchen to help get dinner on the table. One child can set the table, another can pour drinks, an older child can help serve — freeing you up to take care of the cooking. And you can find recipes that kids can make with your help.
6. Embrace imperfection. Parents often think that a family dinner needs to be this perfect homemade meal with all the food groups. The truth is just by sitting down and eating with your children the benefits you reap are huge — don't fret the details.