Families who eat together are better in a number of ways

In some families, it's a Norman Rockwell portrait-style event with tablecloths, linen napkins, multiple pieces of silverware and actual table manners.

In other families, it's pizza on paper plates in the den.

In most families, it's somewhere in the middle.

But whatever the scene looks like and however gourmet (or not) the meal is, experts agree: The more often your family can eat dinner together, the better.

For 18 years, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia) has been studying the relationship between family mealtime and youth behaviors -- and yes, there is a relationship.

Teens who eat family dinners at least five times per week report better relationships with their parents, less drug and alcohol use, less smoking, more frequent attendance at religious services and lower levels of stress than teens who have family dinners less than three times a week, the CASA Columbia research indicates.

"The parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children," said Emily Feinstein, senior policy analyst at CASA Columbia.

But the benefits of family mealtimes aren't limited to behavioral and emotional health. Dr. Dana Rofey, a physician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh's Weight Management and Wellness Center, said physical health is better, too.

Frequent family meals are "a great predictor of limited pediatric obesity," she said. With her patients, she frequently recommends that families start eating meals together if they haven't been.

Carolyn Anderson, author of "Recipes Menus Prayers for Family Gatherings," thinks eating together as a family doesn't have the same cultural importance it once had. She owns a real estate company in Greenwich, Conn., and often chats with young parents who are buying homes.

"They seem to have a tremendous interest in providing enrichment and education for their children," Ms. Anderson said. But when she began inquiring how often the families ate dinner together, the answer was "rarely."

When she was growing up, it was just expected: Families ate together. She and her husband raised their now-grown children to eat with them around the table because that's just how they had always done things.

"I didn't really analyze it," she said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."

She thinks things have changed not only because families are busier but also because they're more mobile and scattered. She grew up in a family with many traditions; when every major holiday (and even some of the minor ones) rolled around, "out came the same dishes," she said.

Now, people live far from extended family and might not even get the opportunity to celebrate together on holidays, let alone gather their nuclear families together on a regular old day. She hopes her cookbook will help nudge people to start traditions around the table again.

Dr. Rofey added that childhood obesity continues to increase in spite of many community-based incentives and programs promoting healthier eating.

It might be surprising to hear that the majority of the population (though a small majority) does still gather around family meals frequently. In CASA Columbia's study population, 57 percent of teens reported having dinner with their families at least five times a week. And that's teens, with their extracurricular activities and after-school jobs and busy social lives, not to mention their supposed attempts to avoid their parents.

Parental avoidance by kids might be largely a myth, though. On her TV show in 1993, Oprah Winfrey issued a challenge to five families who hadn't been sharing dinnertime: Spend one month eating a 30-minute meal together every night. Everybody thought the parents would be the ones eating up the sappy "quality time." Turned out it was a bigger hit with the kids.

"They really want our time and attention way more than they let on," said Leon Wirth, executive director of parenting and youth for Focus on the Family, which runs frequent radio ads, radio programs and a Facebook page (facebook.com/MakeEveryDayCount) dedicated to promoting family mealtime. Adolescents in particular, he said, "are really craving stability in their world."

But in today's busy society, the question often becomes: How do you actually make it happen? How do you get the entire family around the table -- with some type of food on the table, too -- all at the same time?

Mr. Wirth says raising a family can be daunting. "Trying to do family life well can feel like rocket science," he said -- but it needn't. Here are some strategies that have worked for the experts we consulted.

1. Change things up. Some of Mr. Wirth's favorite mealtime suggestions include shocking the kids by serving dessert first, having the family change into pajamas and then eat breakfast food for dinner, or even eating "on the run" together at a fast-food restaurant if someone has a piano lesson or football practice.

2. Use technology as friend, not foe. Mr. Wirth frequently points parents to the emeals.com website, which includes meal plans for different dietary needs matched to sale items at your local grocery store, plus quick-prep recipes and shopping lists. There are lots of free iPhone apps with recipes and shopping lists, too.

But when it's time for dinner, chuck the phone.

"We suggest families let the phones go to voicemail, turn off the TV and enjoy each other's company," Ms. Feinstein said.

Dr. Rofey agrees: "We talk a lot about mindful eating" with patients at the Weight Management and Wellness Center. "When you're sitting in front of the computer, you don't pay attention to how much you're eating and satiety levels and things like that. You're more likely to consume higher-fat foods when you're watching TV. We encourage families to sit around the same table without any TV or electronics on."

3. Prep ahead. Katie Workman, author of "The Mom 100 Cookbook," doesn't like to give people guilt trips about family meals. As she writes in the introduction to her cookbook, "I don't think you need to hear another diatribe about how we're not making enough time to be a family at the dinner table, and how packaged foods and take-out are ruining our health, and how hard you have to fight to keep your kids from turning into French fry-munching, video game-loving, sugar-addicted zombies."

But she and her husband and children do manage to gather around the dinner table together about four nights a week, and she's honed a few techniques that help make that possible.

Her favorite tip is to spend a few spare minutes on a weeknight or a Sunday afternoon chopping shallots, garlic, parsley or carrots, juicing lemons, grating ginger, cubing chicken breasts or otherwise prepping ingredients and placing them in containers in the refrigerator.

"When you get home, if you have those ingredients prepped, you're halfway to a stir-fry," she said. "That's the thing that saves me more often than not."

4. Make the process kid-friendly. To keep the dinner atmosphere positive and minimize complaining, Ms. Workman likes to involve her kids in meal prep, too, on the theory that if they help cook it, they're more likely to eat it enthusiastically. She even asks for their suggestions when she's planning menus, "although if someone yells, 'Tacos!' at me one more time..." she said with a chuckle.

Her cookbook is unique in that many of the recipes include what she calls "Forks in the Road" -- variations that can make the dishes plain for the kids and spicy or frou-frou for the adults. Thus, she includes a recipe for "Chicken Piccata-ed or Plain," risotto can go all the way from plain to a shrimp-Parmesan-parsley combo, and Sesame Noodles get a variety of mix-ins. This way, you're still cooking the same food for everyone, but maybe the kids' just isn't as spicy.

"Then the kids can try Mommy and Daddy's, and if they like it, maybe next time you make it the same way for everybody," she said.

Ms. Anderson added that when her kids were small, "we had fun in the kitchen. Someone could stir for me or set the table. It was a prelude to sitting down together. It wasn't a rule [to help in the kitchen] but something we could all look forward to."

5. Don't sweat the food -- because it's really not about the food anyhow. In the statement accompanying CASA Columbia's research report, founder and chairman emeritus Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote, "The magic that happens at family dinners isn't the food on the table, but the conversations and family engagement around the table."

Ms. Feinstein suggests, "Let everyone share about their day, or have fun planning family activities together."

"It's just the fact that parents and kids are dependably, regularly connecting" around the table that's important, Mr. Wirth said -- not the food.

If you're busy, you can concentrate on making one item for dinner, such as a good soup, and buy prepared foods for the rest of the meal, Ms. Anderson suggested. Or pick up some fresh corn and tomatoes at the farmer's market when they're in season, and you have a good meal without much prep at all.

Chances are, if you eat dinner together as a family, you'll get better nutrition by default. Dr. Rofey cited one study indicating that when parents eat dinner with their children, the children are at less risk for poor consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, and another study indicating that the parents end up eating more fruits and veggies around the family table, too.

6. Don't give up. "No matter how you try to set up your commitment to family meals, there will be interruptions," Mr. Wirth said. He urges families to take advantage of weekend time together, or perhaps eat breakfast together instead of dinner if that's when everyone's in the house at the same time.

"Don't give up if you face a couple obstacles," he said.

Ms. Workman concurred: "Don't have an all-or-nothing attitude. Every week is its own separate reality. If one kid has play rehearsal, maybe you sit down with the other kid for dinner. It's a real blend of what works."

"I subscribe by 'anything is better than nothing' with my patients," Dr. Rofey agreed. So if families tell her they never eat meals together, she'll suggest that start with one per week -- maybe Saturday dinner, or even Saturday lunch if dinnertime doesn't work.

"Be flexible," Ms. Anderson added. "It doesn't need to be all the time. But when you can do it, it will feel good to be around the table together."

Tray-Baked Sausages with Apples and Onions

PG tested

  • 3 red onions, cut into wedges
  • 3 red apples, cored and cut into 6 wedges
  • 7 ounces baby carrots, scrubbed
  • 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 12 good-quality pork sausages
  • 2 tablespoons chopped sage leaves
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
  • 3 tablespoons honey

Place wedges of onion and apple in a large, shallow roasting pan with the carrots and potatoes. Drizzle over the oil, then toss well to lightly coat all the vegetables in the oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Arrange the sausages in and around the vegetables, sprinkle with the herbs and toss again.

Place in a preheated oven, 400 degrees, for 20 to 22 minutes until golden and cooked through.

Remove from oven and drizzle with honey. Toss all the vegetables and sausages in the honey and serve. Serves 4.

-- "Quick Cook: Family Meals" by Emma Jane Frost (Hamlyn, 2012, $9.99)

Pasta with Meatballs and Sauce

PG tested

  • 1 slice plain bread
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 1/4 pounds ground meat, preferably a combination of beef, pork and veal
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup finely freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse salt, plus more for cooking the pasta
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups Tomato Sauce (see below)
  • 16-ounce package dried pasta of any shape

Tear bread into pieces and place in small bowl. Pour milk over bread, stir to combine and let sit until bread has absorbed most of the milk, about 5 minutes. Squeeze out excess milk and shred bread into little pieces.

Place meat in large bowl. Add soaked bread, egg, parmesan, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Using your hands, blend the meat mixture well but try not to squeeze it too much. Form the meat mixture into nice round meatballs about 11/2 inches in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray.

Arrange meatballs on baking sheet so they are not touching. Bake meatballs until almost cooked through, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring tomato sauce to a simmer in a medium-size pot over medium-low heat. Add partially cooked meatballs to the sauce and let simmer until fully cooked, about 10 minutes.

While meatballs are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add salt and let water return to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain pasta and serve with the sauce and meatballs. Top with extra parmesan if desired. Serves 6.

Tomato Sauce

PG tested

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes, preferably pureed
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes, or more to taste (optional)
  • Kosher or coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until it starts to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, basil and red pepper flakes, if using. Season sauce with salt and black pepper to taste and let come to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer gently until it thickens slightly and the flavors taste nicely melded, about 20 minutes. Makes just under 7 cups.

-- Recipes from"The Mom 100 Cookbook" by Katie Workman (Workman, 2012, $16.95)

Asenath's Country Bread

PG tested

Note: For an easy way to create a warm, draft-free area for your dough to rise, use your oven. Heat the oven to 150 degrees, turn it off, then open the door slightly to bring the inside temperature down to about 90 degrees.

-- Rebecca Sodergren

  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup dark molasses
  • 3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup dried currants (we used dried cranberries)
  • 1/3 cup warm water
  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • 5 1/4 cups sifted flour

Combine milk, cornmeal and salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Place cornmeal mixture in bowl of an electric mixer and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes to cool it. Add molasses, butter, allspice, currants and sugar. Mix on low speed for 1 more minute.

Thoroughly mix the yeast into the warm water (about 110 degrees). Then add to the cornmeal mixture. Mix on low speed for another minute. Slowly add the flour and continue to beat on low speed until thoroughly mixed and the dough becomes stiff.

Place the stiff dough on a floured surface. Let it rest about 5 minutes and then knead for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Put the kneaded dough in a warm, greased bowl and rotate the dough so it is greased on top. Cover the bowl and set in a warm, draft-free area for 40 minutes to let the dough rise.

Place the dough gently on a floured surface, cut into 2 pieces and form into 2 loaves.

Place each loaf in a warm, greased loaf pan, cover and set in a warm, draft-free area for 40 minutes to let rise again.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake loaves for 45 to 55 minutes. Insert toothpick in center; when it comes out clean, the bread is done.

Take loaves out of pans and place on rack to cool.

-- "Recipes Menus Prayers for Family Gatherings" by Carolyn Anderson (Dinner Table, 2012, $15.95)

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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