Home cooking builds strong families

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – A regularly scheduled home meal can help ease a number of family issues, according to a group of University of Missouri specialists.

“The coming holidays put a lot of emphasis on the tradition of families gathering around the dinner table,” said Robert Hughes, associate dean of the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Sciences.

“Given the uneasiness we’re all facing with the events of this fall, such meals take on even greater importance.”

Traditions, including any activity the family does together on a regular basis, play an important role in family behavior, said Kim Thalhuber, family development specialist.

Family dinner is key. “One of the most common rituals is a family meal,” Thalhuber said. Her recent study of 66 families found 85 percent had regular or somewhat regular family dinners, with 76 percent of the parents expecting all family members to be present.

She said other studies show that any meaningful common ritual or family routine leads to better self-esteem for adolescents and fewer anxiety-related symptoms.

“The structure of regular meals and other family activities has a positive influence on a child’s independence and self-sufficiency,” Thalhuber said.

Time to communicate. Mealtime also gives family members an important chance to talk about the day’s events, or about their concerns. That can be especially important given the anxiety children may feel following the Sept. 11 attacks, she said.

While dinnertime conversation can do much for mental balance, the meal itself goes a long way toward balancing out the family’s nutrition, said Jo Britt-Rankin, nutritional scientist.

Studies by the National Restaurant Association show that families with more than $75,000 annual income consume an average of five commercially prepared meals per week; families with annual incomes below $15,000 consume 3.2 meals out per week.

Bad meal habits. “The trend continues that meals eaten out are up, at-home meals are down and general problems with obesity and weight problems are also up,” Britt-Rankin said.

A new, disturbing trend is that serving sizes of fast-food meals eaten out are also on the increase.

“It’s so easy, for 10 cents or a little more, to ‘supersize’ those fast-food meals,” Britt-Rankin said. “So we’re seeing the potential for things such as calories and fat consumed per meal to go up as well.”

Eating more meals at home are a sure way to better track the caloric content, she said.

Meal money. A family’s financial health also can get a boost from the simple act of eating more at home. Latest USDA figures show the average Midwestern family spends 13.4 percent of its income on food: 7.5 percent on food at home and 5.9 percent on dining out.

“While money spent on food is a relatively small part of the budget, we can save some fairly significant amounts of money by having more meals at home,” said Joyce Cavanagh, consumer and family economics specialist.

In the Midwest, families spent an average of $4,865 on food in 2000, or about $2,100 on food eaten away from home.

Feed your wallet. While the difference between at-home meals and restaurant food can vary greatly, Cavanagh said a family could easily save $300-$500 a year by having more meals at home.

“With many families concerned about a continued economic downturn, those dollars can be put toward savings, paying down high-interest debt or a home mortgage,” she said.

“The high amount of consumer credit-card debt in the U.S. is well documented. If $500 in meal savings are used to pay off credit-card debt, you’re not only saving the $500 but also that 18 percent or higher interest payment.”

“With our fast-paced, society, it’s getting harder and harder for families to spend time together,” Thalhuber said.

Helps all-around. “Establishing the routine of one or more family meals a day can create some of that time together, as well as helping with the family’s nutrition and economics.”

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