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The Family Dinner: A Potential Upside of the Pandemic?

The pandemic has afforded us the opportunity, perhaps unwelcome at times, to share meals with our families again. I’m going to give you five tips – and a recipe – for making dinner a positive experience for everyone.

Tip #1: Get the Kids Involved

During this time of increased – and let’s be honest, at times excessive – togetherness, it’s inevitable that boredom and tension set in, especially if you have children and they have parents. This is a great opportunity, then, to use this extra time for cooking with kids. There are great benefits to doing this:

  • It’s an opportunity to spend time together that can be enjoyable, educational, and productive. Even young children can rinse off vegetables or pour ingredients into bowls. Older kids can measure, chop, and help cook.
  • Kids are much more likely to eat something they’ve helped pick out &/or prepare (1,2). This may turn out to be a great way to increase your child’s willingness to try new foods.

Tip # 2: Enjoy Yourselves

As much as you can, let mealtime be a destressing and pleasurable time. There are several ways to address problematic eating habits in children (and in future posts, I’ll talk about them), but for now, let me just say that forcing kids to eat healthy foods is likely to make them avoid those foods even more. On the other hand, pleasure associated eating tends to create an environment in which children are more likely to be open to new and healthier food options (3).

Tip #3:  Be the Change You Want to See

While forcing children to eat healthy foods tends to be counterproductive, modeling enjoyment of those foods is effective. For example, when parents eat more vegetables and show enthusiasm for them, their children are much more likely to do the same (4).

Tip #4: Make Dinnertime Screen-Free

When a family of four is sitting at the table, each one with a device of some sort, then they become four individuals eating alone while sitting in the same place. Dinner can be a chance to increase connection and take a break from the screens that hold such power over all of us, both children and adults.

Tip #5: Repeat

Try to make family dinners a regular part of your lives as a time to come together with conversation and a shared enjoyment of food. Regardless of factors such as the age of the children, the number of parents in the family, or socioeconomic status, frequent shared mealtimes are associated with better nutritional health (5). And it’s more than just nutrition: “Eating meals, particularly dinner, with family members has been found to be associated with improved dietary intake, lower prevalence of disordered eating behaviors, lower levels of substance abuse, and improved academic outcomes among adolescents (6)

And now for a recipe. I’m choosing something easy and fun to prepare, versatile, and delicious. It’s starts with spiralized zucchini, also known as zucchini noodles. This is so much fun to make, which makes kids more likely to eat it. The safest inexpensive spiralizer when there are kids in the kitchen appears to be the Joyce Chen Saladacco Spiral Slicer. The cutting mechanism is completely inside.

As you will see, this recipe is a theme with variations. You may want to let your kids choose the toppings and sauce or participate in other parts of the preparation. You may want to set out more than one cooked vegetable for the topping and let each person choose (and then use the uneaten cooked vegetables the next day with eggs or leftover zucchini noodles or something). You get the idea. It’s supposed to be enjoyable!

 

Spiralized Zucchini with Who-Knows What

Ingredients

  • 4-6 medium-sized zucchinis, spiralized (see note #1)
  • 1 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 or 2 cloves minced garlic (optional)
  • Protein of your choice:
    • 1 pound uncooked, peeled shrimp, dried in a cloth or paper towel (see note #2), or:
    • 2 cans of rinsed, drained beans, or:
    • shredded cooked fish or chicken
  • Toppings: ½ cup sliced red bell peppers &/or halved cherry tomatoes &/or cooked broccoli &/or cooked asparagus, &/or chopped carrots for example
  • Sauce of your choice, such as pesto, tomato sauce, or olive oil
  • Shredded parmesan cheese (optional)

Preparation—

  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. If you’re using shrimp, add it now. Cook the shrimp for 5 – 8 minutes, just until fully cooked and pink. Transfer the shrimp to a clean bowl or platter and set aside.
  • Add zucchini noodles to the same pan used for the shrimp and sauté for 60 seconds over medium heat until just tender (see note #3). 
  • Plate the zucchini, shrimp or other protein, & toppings. Top with sauce and cheese.

Notes—

Note #1: Feel free to use part zucchini noodles, part cooked regular pasta noodles, preferably whole wheat or some type of legume pasta (my personal favorite is red lentil)

Note #2: I always keep a bag of frozen uncooked shrimp (preferably wild — I check for when it’s on sale) in the freezer to have on hand when the spirit moves me.

Note #3: If you prefer, you can microwave the zucchini noodles in a bowl with a tablespoon of water for a minute. Drain.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions. Get in touch!

References

(1)Vollmer RL, Baietto J. Practices and preferences: Exploring the relationships between food-related parenting practices and child food preferences for high fat and/or sugar foods, fruits, and vegetables. Appetite. 2017;113:134‐140.

(2)Vaughn AE et al. Fundamental constructs in food parenting practices: a content map to guide future research. Nutr Rev. 2016 Feb; 74(2): 98–117.

(3)Marty L, Chambaron S, Nicklaus S, Monnery-Patris S. Learned pleasure from eating: An opportunity to promote healthy eating in children?. Appetite. 2018;120:265‐274.

(4)Edelson LR, Mokdad C, Martin N. Prompts to eat novel and familiar fruits and vegetables in families with 1-3 year-old children: Relationships with food acceptance and intake. Appetite. 2016;99:138‐148.

(5)Dallacker M, Hertwig R, Mata J. The frequency of family meals and nutritional health in children: a meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2018;19(5):638‐653.

(6)Walton K et al. Secular trends in family dinner frequency among adolescents. BMC Res Notes. 2016;9:35.