When Krista Scott was 5, her father taught her to make scrambled eggs. At 8, while making salsas and salads with her grandmother, Scott learned to use chef’s knives. At 12, she set up a pretend restaurant in her mother’s house, creating menus and preparing meals. Today, Scott, 18, is studying to become a professional chef at the Art Institute of California-San Diego.
Dylan B. of Wisconsin has been cooking with his parents since he was 4. “My dad and I would make stir-frys together. When I was older he let me be in charge of the wok,” says the 15-year-old. “I also grill chicken and steaks with my dad. He usually instructs, and I do the grilling.” Dylan’s specialties include fish, chicken, steak, macaroni and cheese, and grilled vegetables. “No matter what we are cooking, I always add the seasoning,” Dylan says. “My mom bought an electric salt and pepper mill for me to use. I like to mix up other spices so no meal is the same.”
What do those two young chefs have in common, besides great cooking skills? They both make time for regular family meals. “We eat together every night at the dinner table,” Dylan says. “In the summer we eat outside on the patio. I usually cook with my room on the weekends.”
It’s the same for Scott’s family. “Every day we eat a meal together,” she reports. Scott believes that mealtimes with her family have strengthened their relationship over the years.
She and Dylan have the right idea. Not only do mealtimes bring families closer, but eating together at the dinner table is also linked to healthier lifestyles and success in school.
Time to Eat
There’s no denying that people are busy. “Eating meals together has been a ritual for many years. It’s only been in somewhat recent history that people have become less likely to eat a family meal,” says Marilyn Swanson, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
With conflicting school and work schedules, almost half of American families don’t eat together as often as they’d like, according to a study by the Iowa State University Extension.
But studies show that making time to eat with your family can produce a smorgasbord of healthy benefits. Just consider these:
You’ll eat more healthfully. Young people who regularly eat meals with their families eat more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods and drink fewer soft drinks than other people their age, according to a five-year study from the University of Minnesota.
You may become more conscious Of how you are eating too. Family meals encourage “eating slower, as opposed to a grab-and-go meal,” Swanson says. “It takes 20 minutes for your [stomach] to tell your brain ‘oh, I’m filled up, don’t need to eat any more.’ In [a] fast-food generation, we don’t always wait that 20 minutes.” Taking the time to eat more slowly can mean fewer calories taken in.
Additionally, “the portion sizes might be more appropriate [at home],” says Swanson. “[Food] made at home tends to be eaten in smaller quantities.”
You’ll have a healthier lifestyle. Teens who eat with their families five or more times per week are less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, finds a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.
You may do better In school. Teens in CASA’s study reported earning more A’s and B’s in school than students who ate dinner with their families fewer than three times a week.
You’ll be a better communicator. Mealtime conversations have been shown to improve young people’s vocabulary, according to studies by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of the University of Minnesota. Chatting with your family about whether it’s a good idea to build a skate park in your town has the hidden benefit of improving your conversational and thinking skills!
If you’re a girl, you’ll be less likely to develop an eating disorder. Teen girls sharing at least five or more family meals per week were less likely to use diet pills or laxatives, binge eat, or vomit to control their weight, according to the Minnesota researchers.
You’ll be happier. The majority of teens–84 percent–report that they want to eat dinner with their families. Mealtime is a great opportunity to share an activity (planning and cooking a meal), talk about everyday or important issues, and create memories. “There is always a little excitement when we are cooking together,” says Dylan. “One time my mom bought some expensive fish, and our dog reached up on the counter and tried to grab it. We wrestled it away from him, and it was still fairly intact. No one knew [that story] until now!”
“When I think about one Christmas, I think about the huge meal we made,” says Scott. “You have memories to look back on, and it’s all around dinner.”
Experts believe that it’s best for families to aim to eat at least five meals a week together. What can you do to find the time?
Planning ahead is key. On the weekend, plan mealtimes for the week ahead. Choose menus and divide responsibilities among family members for shopping and food preparation.
View mealtimes as a special event. Find unusual recipes to experiment with as a family. Set aside one night a week to set a particularly pretty table or serve a special favorite dish to encourage family members to linger a little longer around the table.
Trade TV time for meal time. Keeping the television off also allows conversation to flow more easily.
Try to work with people’s schedules. “We don’t always eat at the same time because I have basketball or tennis practice,” says Dylan. When it comes to family mealtimes together, “some is better than none,” says Swanson. “Sometimes [families] can be creative.” If you or a sibling has a football or basketball game, for example, others in the family can have a picnic together at the game. Or if a parent has to work a night shift, see about taking him or her dinner to eat together during a break.
Eating together with your family is great for everyone. It’s healthy, it’s happy, and if you get involved in the food preparation, it’s also educational. If you can barely boil water today, you’ll soon build skills you can use the rest of your life. “Volunteer to cook a meal and show off your skills,” says Swanson. “Be known for [your] chicken cacciatore!”
* Compile a list of meals that are fun and easy for teens and their families to make together.
* What are some advantages of cooking and eating with your family? (healthier eating and lifestyle, better grades and communication, lower risk of eating disorders, increased happiness)
* How often should you try to eat with your family? (at least five meals per week)
* In addition to those the article states, what are some other benefits of eating and cooking with your family? (Answers will vary.)
* Yum-O! The Family Cookbook, by Rachael Ray (Clarkson Potter, 2008)
* Teens Cook Dessert, by Megan Carle and Jill Carle with Judi Carle (Ten Speed Press, 2006)
What’s for Dinner?
In a rush? Not a great cook? Here are a few simple suggestions for getting a healthy, tasty dinner on the table.
* Pick dishes that are easy to assemble, such as salads, stews, tacos, fajitas, or pasta. Divvy up the prop work among family members.
* If you have a slow cooker, learn to use it! Prep work is done in the morning, and the food cooks during the day. At dinnertime, a hot meal is ready to go.
* Have breakfast for dinner! Prepare eggs, pancakes, or French toast, and serve with a fresh fruit salad.
* Try making pizza at home. It’s healthier and less expensive than take-out pizza, and it’s simple. You can buy pizza dough in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Add your own sauce and toppings.
* Your library has tons of cookbooks. Look for those that are aimed at beginning cooks, teens, or people in a hurry. Or if you’re more adventurous, check out cookbooks of different world cuisines.
Cookbooks to Check Out
Clueless in the Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens and Other Beginners by Evelyn Raab
How to Cook Everything and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
Simple & Delicious Cookbook: 260 Quick, Easy Recipes Ready in 10, 20, or 30 Minutes and The New Slow Cooker by Taste of Home Editors
Teens Cook: How to Cook What You Want to Eat by Megan and Jill Carle