Sitting down to a family meal at the end of the day used to be a daily ritual that was taken for granted. These days, however, it is the exception rather than the rule.
Two out of three British families no longer share most of their dinners, and, sadly, many families prefer eating their ready-made, supermarket meals in front of the television. In an ironic twist, families are too busy watching food programmes on the television to enjoy a shared, home-cooked meal!
However, a shared meal should not be idolised. At times children can bicker, whine and fuss over food; the adults may be stressed from a long and busy day; and the food may not necessarily be healthy. Nevertheless, the statistics are clear; children who regularly eat with their parents are healthier, happier and do better at school. Psychological studies also show that the real benefits of shared family meals become apparent when the children are teenagers. The more often families eat together, the less likely children are to smoke, drink, take drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide.
Obviously, the way we eat has as much of an effect on our health and well-being as the nutrients we take in. Good nutrition is not just about vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats. It is also about the other types of nutrition a shared meal provides; physical, social, emotional and educational.
Nutritionally speaking, as a parent you stand a much greater chance of instilling healthy eating habits in your children if you share the same table with them and lead by example. Sitting with your children and eating a healthy meal together is the best way to get the message across. Cooking a fresh, homemade, nutritious dinner may take more time, but children fed in this way are less likely to become obese or snack on unhealthy processed foods. They learn fist hand, day in, day out, what a proper meal consists of, and lessons learned in childhood last for life.
- Keep it simple. Offer good, nutritious meals not gourmet fare. Children like unfussy food. Reserve experimentation with chefs' recipes for the weekend.
- Prepare ahead: make a quick dish and leave it in the oven of slow cooker with the timer set for the evening
- Do some planning at the weekend, especially if you are out at work during the week. Decide what you'll make during the week and shop for the ingredients at the weekend.
- Keep a good selection of different sauces on hand; they can turn basic ingredients into culinary delights.
- Write down and pin up in the kitchen a list of favourite dishes that you know are quick, easy and preferably nutritious; curries, stir fries and meal-in-a-bowl soups are all possibilities. Resort to the list when you run out of ideas.
- Ask for help if you need it. Children of all ages love helping out in the kitchen, and you may be surprised how useful they can actually be. Learn to think of your children as your meal task force. They'll happily measure, chop, mix, wash and arrange, according to their age and ability. If you want them out of the kitchen area, get them to set the table. The more you involve them, the more they'll learn helpful skills and a measure of responsibility