Family meals have always been important to Kerry Clifford, MS RD, LDN—and sometimes they’re unexpectedly an adventure, too. “My mom was always the cook and she cooked what was familiar for the whole family to sit down and enjoy,” says Kerry, Fresh Thyme Registered Dietitian. “But every once in a while, she left us with Dad to figure it out. He’d find random ingredients left in the fridge and make something up. One time, he combined mayonnaise, whipped cream, cabbage, and grapes to make what we called Funky Salad. Needless to say, we ended up at a restaurant. But I learned at a young age that experimenting in the kitchen was fun, harmless, and a family memory that’s still joked about decades later.”
Rewards come from cooking and eating together as a family, even if, with today’s hectic schedules, it’s only a few times a week. And it might be more beneficial than you realize. It helps kids develop healthy eating habits, learn portion controls, and try new ingredients and better foods. Family dinners increase the nutritional intake of fruits and vegetables, and decrease the amount of fried foods and soda. A routine of eating together also provides other powerful benefits beyond the dinner table. It brings a family closer through quality time together and conversation without distractions (yep, turn off the TV and put away the phones). It can help improve performance in school and lower the risk of substance abuse or depression. All this while sharing a delicious family favorite or an occasional Funky Salad. Good habits. Good memories. Good nutrition. So what’s not to love?
Plan the Meal
Start with letting your kids play a role in the planning. Let them suggest meal ideas and then do them. Even if it’s always the same suggestion (ahem, pizza!), help them learn how to modify it and try new variations. Have kids participate in the shopping. As they become invested in what ends up on the table, they’ll be more likely to eat it.
Make a list
Let kids contribute to the grocery list. Move beyond “candy” by guiding choices: “Do you want apples or pears? Write down your choice.”
Try new foods
See what gets their attention at the store, such as colorful carrots or a funny-looking kohlrabi. Buy it and cook it—they’ll be curious to try it.
Grow your own
Let the kids help tend a few kitchen herbs and let them snip a leaf for meals. It also helps them appreciate where food comes from.
“One of the best meals I can remember is when I was about 14,” says Meghan Daw, RD, LDN, Fresh Thyme Registered Dietitian. “Our favorite dish at the time was baked chicken with an apricot glaze. One day, my younger brother decided to make it all on his own. After about two hours and a pile of dirty dishes, my whole family sat down to the dinner. It smelled great and looked tasty, but as soon as we bit into the chicken we knew something was terribly wrong. It tasted like candied chicken! To be polite, we all said it was great. After dinner, my mom asked to see the ingredients. He pulled out a container of powdered sugar. He said, ‘I used a lot of this cornstarch to make it thick.’ No wonder the chicken was so sweet! We all call this the chicken catastrophe of 1999 and still bring it up today. Our lesson is that no matter how the meal was, it still was a great time to be with our family, share our day, and lead to memories and laughter for years to come.”
That’s the risk—and the fun—of letting kids help cook. It helps kids build skills for the future and put them in touch with their foods. Picky eaters will dig in when they’ve had a hand in putting it on the plate. So make way for your kitchen helpers. And some family stories.
Starting out: Read aloud from the recipe. Rinse fruit and veggies. Tear lettuce, snap beans, and shell peas. Set and clear the table. Stir ingredients. Use cookie cutters. Shape meatballs.
Basic skills: Pour and measure ingredients. Crack eggs. Mix with a spoon or whisk. Add toppings. Cook soup. Flip pancakes. Knead dough. Prepare veggies. Operate small appliances.
Keep growing: Add tasks as skills develop. Keep it fun and encouraging. Don’t worry about mistakes. It’s all part of learning together. Even if you get a little egg shell in your cake on occasion.
Having regular family dinners gives kids a sense of stability and comfort and a better chance they’ll try the beets.
It’s not likely that you can gather the troops every night, but even three or four family dinners a week will pay dividends. Start discussions and give everyone time to talk. Look at each other and truly listen, but keep it casual. Eat slowly and enjoy the time—even up to an hour. It’s all about growing together as a family, one healthy meal at a time.
Serve everyone the same foods. Veggies, too. That’s how kids learn. However, you can help kids adjust to new flavors at their own pace with recipes where ingredients can be swapped out or added. For instance, offer avocado slices as burger options. Basic spaghetti can come with optional add-ons, like olives or artichokes. Even if the kids still slurp it up plain, the family experience has already been served.
Food for thought
Discuss what you’re eating: the origin, how it grows, interesting facts. Or let kids guess ingredients in a recipe.
What’s the best thing that happened to you this week? What would you change about your school? What worries you? Who is the funniest person you know?
Who’s your best friend? Why? What things are you good at? What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Best movie?
What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet? What places would you like to visit? How will your team do this year?