By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist
Please reminisce with me for a couple of minutes. Think of some of the best times you had with your family around a dinner table.
Maybe it was with your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Perhaps the occasions you recall are with your children or grandchildren.
What did you have to eat? Was it a simple meal or a multicourse holiday meal? Maybe you don’t remember the exact menu, but instead you remember the laughter and fun times.
As a kid, I remember the super-deluxe holiday meals with plates and bowls of food on every flat surface in our kitchen. We used the fancy plates and silverware. I remember helping with the dishes, too.
The mealtime memories that I treasure, however, were simple. We enjoyed a lot of fresh food from our garden and the menu changed based on what was in season. No one could begin eating until everyone was gathered at the kitchen table. Of course, we had no cellphones back then, and the TV was turned off. Actually, the TV was in another room.
My favorite menu consisted of tender leaf lettuce with a creamy, vinegary dressing, fresh green beans sauteed with a little bacon (which is really tasty, by the way), baby red potatoes and for dessert, strawberries, raspberries or apples, depending on the season. We had various protein foods to round out the menu.
Recently, I asked my three kids ages 14 to 22 directly what family meals they liked the best. I was expecting to hear about our elaborate holiday family meals served in our dining room table set with fancy dishes and cloth napkins. Those meals are quite an undertaking in preparation and cleanup.
Instead, they remembered something else.
“I remember when we held an umbrella over the grill while Dad cooked dinner in the pouring rain,” my older daughter said.
“Yes, we got soaked,” my younger daughter added. Then they laughed at the memory.
September is National Family Meals Month. With the launch of school and extracurricular activities, families can get so busy that they rarely see each other, much less eat together. This time crunch may cause families to shortchange themselves on one of the most beneficial activities available: eating together as a family.
If you are looking to help your kids succeed in school, family mealtimes can help. Teens who eat together more often with their families do better in school, earning more A’s and B’s than their counterparts who do not eat together as often.
Children who eat more often with their families have a more healthful diet, according to much of the published research. Meals eaten with family members usually include less fat, less pop and more fruits and vegetables. Family meals also tend to be higher in calcium, fiber and other essential nutrients. As a result, children who eat balanced meals with their families are less likely to become overweight.
Besides improving nutrition, eating together creates structure and acts as a protective factor, especially for teens. These family connections can help children avoid engaging in risky behavior such as smoking, drinking alcohol or trying drugs.
Children also learn communication skills as they talk about their day. They might learn negotiation skills as they determine who gets the last biscuit.
Family meals do not have to be fancy. In fact, keeping your menus simple can help make family meals a tradition. Vary the timing of family mealtimes as needed. For example, a family breakfast, dinner in a restaurant, lunch at a picnic site or evening snack all “count” as family meals.
I would like to invite you to “The Family Table” that my NDSU colleagues and I launched in 2017. Aim for at least three family meals per week. Visit https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/familytable to learn more. Sign up for a free e-newsletter and enter our contests to win prizes. Follow and interact with the program on Facebook for regular tips, conversation starters and healthful, economical recipes.
Invite kids into the kitchen, too. They can learn valuable life skills in food preparation as well learn culinary vocabulary and math skills. Enjoy your time together and explore the variety of foods that we have available, especially some seasonal squash.
Creamy Alfredo Spaghetti Squash With Chicken
1 medium spaghetti squash (4 to 5 pounds)
2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
2 c. water
2 (6-ounce) cans of chicken or substitute 1/2 pound roasted or grilled chicken breast, cubed
1 tsp. garlic, minced
1 c. Alfredo sauce
1/2 c. Italian cheese blend
Cut squash in half lengthwise; remove the seeds. Brush each half with 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning. Place squash in a slow cooker with the cut side up. Add water to the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for six to seven hours or high for three to four hours until squash is easy to shred. If using canned chicken, drain and rinse to remove excess sodium. Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add chicken and garlic. Cook for about six minutes or until heated through. Remove squash from slow cooker and carefully shred with a fork, saving the skins. The strands should start to look like spaghetti. Place in a large bowl. Mix in cooked chicken. Add Alfredo sauce to chicken and squash mixture. Stir until combined. Place the mixture back into the skins on a baking sheet. Top with cheese. Place under broiler for approximately five minutes or until cheese is golden brown. Remove mixture from skins or serve as boats.
Makes four servings. Each serving has 370 calories, 19 grams (g) fat, 25 g protein, 26 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber and 640 milligrams sodium.
(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)
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