Many of my fondest childhood memories involve the kitchen table.
Every night my family would gather there to eat the creations my mother conjured up. I vividly remember sitting on a stool at the countertop after school; my mother would turn on Wheel of Fortune and start gathering her ingredients. She was no James Beard award-winning chef (sorry, Mom), but the efforts of the Arkansas transplant to make Louisiana favorites for her family were much appreciated. Sure, some nights were filled with the tension and angst of two growing daughters, but others were filled with laughter to the point of spitting Sprite in my father’s face (sorry, Dad). Today, I hardly remember the food that filled the plate, but I’ll never forget the quality time my parents gave to my family over dinner — that’s what home cooking means to me.
I’m often approached by parents who want to cook for their families but feel overwhelmed by the high expectations to make the perfect meal in both flavor and nutrient quality. I’m here to tell you that it’s not just the food, but the mere act of cooking and eating as a family, that can greatly impact your child’s health. Research has shown that family meals have a positive influence on the health and well-being of the entire family, and often result in children having higher self-esteem, better grades in school and healthier eating habits.
A simple trick to help ensure you’re serving a healthy, well-balance meal for your family is to aim to incorporate all food groups in a meal when possible — fruits, vegetables, grains, fat, protein and dairy. Fruits and vegetables in any variety can be a healthy addition to a meal, including canned, frozen or fresh. Choose whole grains to reap the benefits of fiber, and select sources of unsaturated fat, which can include olive oil, avocado, fish, and nuts and seeds. Always choose lean meats, and incorporate more plant protein sources when possible from foods like quinoa, beans, lentils or soy. Next time you sit down to eat a home-cooked meal, try to identify each food group.
If you struggle to find something your child will like, incorporate them into the process. Many times, children are more likely to try a food if they played a role in choosing or cooking the item. Find simple and safe tasks that your child can do to help you cook and shop. Remember not to force children to eat more than they want to at dinner time. However, don’t cater to them either, and let them know that they can eat what the rest of the family is eating as well.
Lastly, do not underestimate the importance of a plan! Being prepared and having a plan is half the battle in home cooking. Always try to plan your meals for the week, and ask your family for input to keep everyone involved and engaged in the process. By planning simple recipes and purchasing ingredients ahead of time, you reduce the stress that comes with a busy week as well as the temptation to visit the drive-thru.