By Sara Snow
I remember dinnertime when I was young. All six of us would gather around the table, and with steam from the various pots sending ticklers of taste to our noses, we would bow our heads and say our grace. Depending on who was saying it that night the prayer might be quick (either of my brothers) or it might be lengthy (always my dad) but there were two things that were consistent with this prayer: it didn’t happen until everyone was seated and we all ate once we said “amen.” In the month of Thanksgiving it’s fitting to note the numerous benefits of expressing gratitude.
Studies show that people who give thanks regularly, whether in prayer or in the form of a gratitude journal, experience a range of benefits including improved mental alertness, better physical health and better sleep habits. Grateful types are also more likely to be emotionally supportive of others.
But, in my childhood home, there was another side benefit to all of the giving thanks we were doing each evening. It was the family dinnertime that, without fail, always followed. The food passing, the talking, the eating, the arguing, the laughing, and the sometimes throwing. It was family time at its best. And this, family mealtime, is where the research is really impressive and convincing.
Experts tell us that when families eat together, the whole family ends up eating healthier foods (more fruits and vegetables and less fried junk) and kids are less likely to become overweight or obese. Parents and kids end up talking more, which means that parents are more likely to hear about a serious problem than otherwise. Kids feel as if their parents are proud of them and there tends to be less tension at home. Also, and this is where the statistics are astounding, kids become more likely to steer clear of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and other illicit and/or prescription drugs. And, perhaps because of this, their grades are generally better. Finally, meals together provide a vehicle for sharing and carrying on family traditions, particularly if grandparents are present.
As parents we spend countless hours reading books and articles on child rearing. We take our kids to play groups, camps, and after-school tutors in hopes of teaching them important life skills and academic expertise. We shuttle them to oboe lessons and soccer practice to keep them busy and out of trouble. But what would happen if we spent a little less time on all of this and a little more time at home simply being a family?
Granted, a daily task like a home-cooked dinner enjoyed around a table set for five isn’t a likely reality for most busy parents. But this, like most healthy life choices, doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The more you do it, the better off you’ll all be. But even doing it a little bit, a few meals a week, helps.
To get started set a goal of 5-10 family meals a week. And no one says that dinner is the end all be all. Breakfast counts too if you’re all on the same time clock in the morning and can make it work.
Stock your kitchen with healthy foods that you’ll need to throw together a meal in a flash. Some fresh produce like salad greens, broccoli (steam and toss with butter), carrots (serve raw with hummus or steamed), and potatoes (first chop then boil or bake if you’re in a time crunch), eggs (no one says they’re just for breakfast), chicken pieces (get drumsticks for picky kids and breasts for health-conscious adults), and pre-made pizza dough with all the fixings.
It’s perfectly fine to call for take-out now and then. A family meal doesn’t always have to be homemade. Just remember to keep nutrition and portion control in mind.
Set a few parameters so that you don’t get off track. Things like no cell phones or TV, staying at the table until everyone is finished, and maybe even leaving the serious conversation (your daughter’s boyfriend’s friend’s drug problem) for another time. But don’t be afraid to talk about current events and other interesting topics that can keep the whole family engaged.
Finally, start each meal with a short grace. Regardless of your beliefs, you can begin with a word of thanks (to God, to the farmer who grew the food, and/or to mom or dad for preparing it). Doing this does more than just open yourself up to the gratitude you feel. It sets the foundation for a successful family meal. It plants everyone in their seats, gives them pause to acknowledge what’s ahead, and opens their minds to enjoy the food, the company of family, and the countless other benefits that will come along.
Sara Snow is a Green Lifestyle Expert, TV Host and Author with a passion for healthy living and the creation of a more sustainable planet. As creator and host of GET FRESH WITH SARA SNOW and LIVING FRESH for the Discovery Networks, host of BIG GREEN LIES for the Fine Living Channel, as well as through her book, SARA SNOW'S FRESH LIVING, Sara shares a message of simple, attainable green living. It’s the same message she, daughter of organic-foods pioneer, Tim Redmond, grew up with. Sara is also a frequent public speaker and media contributor, having been seen on CNN, Good Morning America, The Early Show, The New York Times, Lucky Magazine, and Better Homes and Gardens, among others. Sara sits on the board of directors of the non-profit groups The Organic Center and Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology. Sara lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, Ryan, and their two daughters. Learn more at www.sarasnow.com