Family Meals: Are they worth the hassle?

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A recent study from North Carolina State University suggests that home-cooked meals place too much stress on many families. Their study, which observed lower to middle income families, cited difficulties with not being able to cook something everyone liked, spending quality time with their children versus spending time cooking, and not being able to provide fresh produce and/or organic produce. The study’s researchers concluded, “This idea of a home-cooked meal is appealing, but it’s unrealistic for a lot of families.”

Dispelling myths: Tips for making home "cooked" meals easier

Preparing meals for one’s family is not an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one either, and is definitely worth the hassle on several levels. Home-cooked meals are not an unrealistic proposition for most families, but many families have unrealistic expectations about the family meal.

For example:

Myth #1: Everything needs to be made from scratch
Scratch cooking is great. There’s no doubt about that. But, does every meal need to be made from scratch every night of the week? No. The world we live in today runs on convenience, so take advantage of it. But be mindful when you do because many convenience options come with a price.

Smart convenience options include:

  • Pre-Packaged Bagged Lettuce: Bagged lettuce that’s already been chopped and cleaned makes it easy to have a salad with dinner. Plus, these bagged items will often go on sale because they’re so perishable.
  • Freeze Your Meals: Make lots of things from scratch when it’s convenient then freeze them for later. This can be a life saver. Plus, while the meal is heating up, you can spend quality time visiting with your family and catching up on their day.
  • Canned/Frozen Produce: These are fantastic convenience options that are affordable and have a long shelf life. Just be aware of the additives. Look for low or no salt/sugar added varieties.

Myth #2: I should only buy fresh organic produce
There is no credible research showing that organic produce is healthier than conventional produce, but there is lots of research showing that all three forms of produce (fresh, frozen and canned) are nutritious, healthy options. If you can’t afford to buy organic produce then buy the conventional varieties. It’s okay. If you feel guilty serving your family frozen vegetable then stop the guilt! In some instances, frozen produce is more nutritious and fresher than the “fresh” produce that’s had to sit on a truck and shelf for weeks.

Myth #3: I’m not a great cook
So what. Most people are terrible drivers, but that doesn’t keep them off the road. Cooking is a life skill that will get easier the more it’s practiced. If you are brand new to cooking then start small. Avoid intimidating cookbooks like the classic Joy of Cooking and most of the annuals from America’s Test Kitchen. The sheer volume of the itty-bitty text size alone is overwhelming. Those books will serve you later when you’re more confident in the kitchen.

Some recommended books that offer healthy recipes, simple steps and easy to read font include:

  • Lickety-Split Meals by Zonya Foco, RD
  • Better Homes & Garden Cookbook (it’s the red and white plaid one)
  • Get Cooking by Mollie Katzen

Myth #4: Everyone should like everything I cook
It’s going to happen and it’s okay if they don’t like everything on the plate.

Try to incorporate at least one segment of the meal with all of your eaters in mind. Utilizing the MyPlate (which encourages us to make half our plate veggies and fruit with the other half being grains and protein and a side of dairy) helps make this possible. For instance, if the only vegetable your child will eat is baby carrots, then make that the vegetable choice for dinner one night. Also, many kids love applesauce, so put a little unsweetened applesauce on the plate for the fruit portion of the meal. And then, take stock of what your family enjoys and write it down.

The Importance of Family Meal Time

So, while the NC State study argues that family meals may not necessarily be worth the hassle, there are hundreds of other research-based studies that beg to differ, showing that children who often eat dinner with their families are more likely to:

  • Do well in school
  • Be emotionally content
  • Have positive peer relationships
  • Less likely to have friends who drink alcohol and use marijuana
  • Have lower levels of stress and be bored less often
  • Be at lower risk for thoughts of suicide
  • Be at lower risk for substance abuse (70% less risk for substance abuse!)
  • Half as likely to try cigarettes, be daily cigarette smokers, or try marijuana
  • One third less likely to try alcohol
  • Half as likely to get drunk monthly
  • Have parents who take responsibility for teen drug use

(Based on reports from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University comparing teens and children who share family dinners at least five times per week to those who shared family meals twice or less per week.)

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Family and Consumer Sciences Agent