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Cooking, enjoying family dinners feeds a range of benefits |
Food & Drink

Cooking, enjoying family dinners feeds a range of benefits

Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
From left to right: Nate Carson (left), 5, his sister Lena, 8, their father Paul, 48, and their mother Jessica, 37, share a laugh around the family dinner table at their home in the North Side on Monday, March 9, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Nate Carson (left), 5, and his sister Lena, 8, talk with their parents Jessica, 37, and Paul, 48, as they eat dinner together at their home in the North Side on Monday, March 9, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Jessica Carson (left), 37, hands her husband Paul, 48, a bowl to carry to the dinner table for their nightly family dinner at their home in the North Side on Monday, March 9, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Nate Carson (left), 5, and his sister Lena, 8, set the table for their nightly family dinner at their home in the North Side on Monday, March 9, 2015.

Jessica Carson and her husband, Paul, work full time: she as a project manager at an advertising agency, and he as a physician at Allegheny General Hospital. Yet, just about every night, the North Side resident makes home-cooked meals for her husband and two kids, and they eat together in the dining room.

This ritual is a standard that Jessica Carson learned from her mother, who regularly provided home-cooked family dinners. It gives the kids — Lena, 8, and Nate, 5 — a chance to connect and bond with each other and their parents, and lets Carson indulge her stress-relieving love of cooking and meal-planning. The children’s tastes are more sophisticated and nutritious than their peers’ because of their mom’s cooking, she says. Their favorite food is lamb chops.

“They are trying different things, and there’s no expectation that it’s going to be macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers every night,” says Jessica Carson, 37.

Psychologically and nutritionally, having regular home-cooked family dinners benefits adults and children in families, says Anne K. Fishel. She’s the author of the new book “Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids” and an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard University Medical School.

Fishel helped found The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit based at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The organization, which began in 2010, promotes family dinners through online and community programs.

When families eat together, they get a chance to connect and communicate in person, and home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than fast or frozen food and restaurant takeout, Fishel says.

Home-cooked meals likely contain more vegetables and fruits and less sugar than the alternatives, and they tend to have fewer calories, she says. More than 100 studies have linked regular family dinners to improved emotional and physical health, better school achievement and decreased risk of issues like substance abuse, truancy and depression, she says.

“If you ask most parents,” Fishel says, “they will say, ‘We want to have family dinners, and we know they are really good for us. They are a way for us to check in with kids, and they make us feel good.”

The challenge comes from making time for these dinners, which can be difficult when many households have two working parents, Fishel says. Many parents she and her colleagues speak to cite obstacles like not having the time, feeling too tired, having kids who are picky eaters, having a limited cash flow and fearing awkward conversation and family tension erupting at the table.

Fundamentally, parents need to be convinced that overcoming those obstacles and having family dinners is worth it, Fishel says.

“For some families, knowing that there are all these benefits is enough to kickstart them,” she says.

Statistically, based on figures from The Family Dinner Project, an estimated 35 percent to 60 percent of American families have regular family dinners, meaning at least four to five times per week, Fishel says.

But these numbers don’t indicate the dynamics of the meals — for instance, whether the family members are talking to each other or eating on the couch while watching television. The average American dinner lasts for 22 minutes, but with younger children, having them sit at the dinner table for just five to 10 minutes is a good start, she says.

Carson says she loves how her family dinners give her husband and kids a chance to connect and have informal conversation.

“We sit down, and we’re all just together,” she says. “It’s not forced conversation. It’s just very casual.”

People who cook their own meals instead of bringing home restaurant meals often eat more healthfully, even if they are not specifically trying to, says Julia A. Wolfson. She is the lead author of a recent study on the subject and a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, at the Baltimore school’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The more frequently somebody is cooking dinner in the home — then the diet quality basically increases,” says Wolfson, a trained chef. “I think it speaks to the fact that when people cook for themselves, they cook really differently than restaurants cook. … When you are preparing your own food, you just have much more control over what’s going into that food.”

A study called “Is Cooking at Home Associated With Better Diet Quality or Weight Loss Intention?” published in the journal Public Health Nutrition analyzed data from a national survey that polled 9,000 adults about what they ate.

The 8 percent who cooked no more than once per week consumed a daily average of 2,301 calories, 84 grams of fat and 135 grams of sugar. By contrast, the 48 percent who cooked dinner six or seven nights per week consumed a daily average of 2,164 calories, 81 grams of fat and 119 grams of sugar.

“The study shows … making the switch to cooking more of the meals at home, you’re going to have a healthier diet,” says Wolfson. “Just that act of cooking at home is going to have beneficial effects.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.

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