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How to Make Family Dinners Happen

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

family dinner

If I only had 5 minutes to spend with a family, the one piece of advice I would give to them would be to eat together as often as they can.  This would be followed by adding structure to meals and snacks by eating them in one designated place.

The truth is plain and simple: How families eat is just as important as what they eat.  And we have the research to prove it. Children who eat with their families at least 3 times per week are more likely to eat healthy food, do better academically, have less behavior problems, maintain healthy weights and have better relationships with their parents.

The 6 O’clock Scramble, a meal planning service for busy families, is challenging families to eat dinner together at least 3 times per week. Take the challenge here.  If you are already doing this, you can still join the challenge that goes until September. You will be showing your support for this important ritual that I believe is making a comeback.

But it’s difficult to mention family dinners without also touching on the reasons families do not eat together, such as busy schedules, picky palates and lack of cooking skills.  Let’s cover these three barriers and how to overcome them.

Challenge #1 — Time: Plan your meals ahead and look for at least three days everyone is home together, including weekends.  If dinners are tough you can do lunches and breakfasts too.  Even if you have different activities and erratic work schedules, still choose a dinner meal for each day.  The meal could be made in the slow cooker or it could even be revamped leftovers.  On nights you can’t eat together, save a plate for your child, and join them while they eat.

Challenge #2 — Picky Palates: Believe it or not, children who are picky benefit even more from family meals than those who aren’t.  That’s because they need the opportunity, exposure and role modeling to gradually add to their food repertoire.  Try serving meals family style, putting out bowls of food and allowing children to serve themselves instead of pre-plating meals. Include little ones in meal planning and make sure their favorite meals make a showing now and then along with familiar sides when it’s not a favorite. And don’t forget to drop the pressure, which makes meals tense and little eaters even more resistant.

Challenge #3Lack of Cooking Skills: I had very few cooking skills when I started preparing food for my family.  After much trial and error, I have learned to focus on food that I enjoy making with flavors and ingredients that are not foreign to me. Over time, even someone who detests cooking can make it enjoyable by gradually adding easy meals to the list of items they make.  In the mean time, it’s okay to rely on some prepared foods until you can find homemade replacements, like the recipe listed below.

So I leave you with this homemade chicken tender my family enjoys, adapted from my new book: Fearless Feeding:  How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. Enjoy eating with your family all summer long!

Homemade Chicken Tenders

  • 1 egg beaten or melted butter
  • 1 to 1.5 pound chicken tenders or breast cut into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 1 cup bread crumbs (or 3/4 cup bread crumbs and 1/4 cup flaxseed meal)
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F. Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Crack the egg (or use butter for a richer nugget) and beat in a small bowl and cut chicken (if using tenders, cut them in half). Dip chicken in egg or butter and then dredge well through bread crumb mixture and place on a cooking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper and sprayed with cooking spray.  Cook for 20-22 minutes or until cooked all the way through.

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