Embracing the Imperfect Family Meal (featured on DrGreene.com)

*This article was featured in the “Perspectives” section of DrGreene.com in March of 2013* http://www.drgreene.com/perspectives/embracing-the-imperfect-family-meal/

One of my biggest “before and after” shifts as a new parent has been in my perception of what family mealtime should look like. Before I actually had children, I held a Rockwell-esque fantasy in mind: our smiling, well-dressed clan, gathered sweetly around a wooden table; our children filling their growing bodies with freshly cooked gourmet foods, and then thanking their gracious chef/mother with all their hearts… Fast forward to reality, as I wipe sweet potatoes off my shirt, beg my 3 year-old to return to the table, yell for my husband to get off the computer, and dump out the contents of my salad spinner with one hand while the other holds a baby on my hip. PARENTHOOD!
Somewhere in between Rockwell and the mile-long drive-thru line for In-N-Out, there’s my family meal goal: eat together at home, as often as possible, as healthy as possible. And just keep trying! It’s that simple. If I don’t stop trying, I cant fail! Fortunately for you, I’ve had a lot of near fails we can both learn from. And here are some kernels of wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way:

1. Your “good” food is always competing with “bad” food.
Obesity researchers talk a lot about the home food environment, because children don’t usually buy much of their own food, so the health of their diet is closely tied to the foods they have access to. A home filled with produce and made-from-scratch foods will likely turn out healthy eaters, so shopping well is a huge step toward family health. But it’s also important to keep in mind that it’s impossible to live in a bubble, or keep your children in one. They will know about cupcakes, fast food, and soda someday, if they don’t already. So try to make it a more fair fight. Focus on taste! So many people throw the baby out with the bath water when trying to shift to a healthier diet and only offer low-fat, low-salt recipes that just can’t compete taste-wise with the highly sweetened, high-fat salty processed foods of the industry. You don’t have to be an uber-healthy cook to improve your family’s health, you just have to be a real cook. Meaning you don’t just open packages and heat things. You use basic ingredients and create dishes. Buy quality, fresh (ideally organic) ingredients, and cook like a real chef would. Use butter and salt (if you don’t have a health condition that recommends abstention). Make it look nice (if you have time). Just remember that you want everyone to WANT to eat your cooking, not just accept it grumpily and count the days until you break down and hit the drive-thru.

2. Someone in your family will eventually adopt a special diet (if they haven’t already), so learn to accommodate with minimal effort.

If no one in your family is vegan, paleo, low-carb, or gluten-free, you might be in the minority. Trying new ways of eating is often a positive step toward optimal health, so I don’t discourage new diets, but I do think there’s something important about a family sharing the same meal. The “short order cook” phenomenon, where parents prepare a separate meal for different family members, has had negative impacts on many, enabling “picky eaters” and disrupting the usual communion of meal time. (For a great article on this by Bettina Siegel, see blogforfamilydinner.org) So the goal is to easily accommodate different eating habits and tastes while still encouraging children to try new things. I recommend going for meals with many different dishes (just make them simple ones so you’re not in the kitchen all night) and let people pick and combine as they wish. Encourage tasting of new things by modeling it yourself, and letting kids know they don’t have to have a whole serving, they can just take a bite (or a lick, as my son likes to do). People are often more flexible than you’d think. When prepared with taste in mind, many meat-eaters will go crazy over tofu, many wheat-eaters will devour spaghetti squash in place of pasta, and everyone will enjoy a good sweet potato. Despite my earlier advice to cook like a real chef, don’t be afraid to make mismatched meals, which leads me into my next kernel…

3. Be open minded, dinner is dinner.

This is a fairly recent epiphany of mine. As someone raised without a lot of family meals at home, my early days as a home cook were marked by a lot of rigidity. A Mexican-spiced entree could only be accompanied by chips, beans, or rice. Spaghetti was served with salad and garlic bread every.single.time. I’ve finally begun to realize that dinner doesn’t have to be quite that well planned all the time; sometimes it’s really fun to have a mixed up meal! So serve that leftover lasagna with some fajita veggies and a piece of cornbread. You might be surprised at how much everyone enjoys the variety.

4. Don’t overreact when things don’t go as planned. You will get to try again VERY soon!

Much like a haircut, the need for another meal will arise before you know it. So don’t let an imperfect dinner make you throw in the towel. Your kids might complain. Your meal might not turn out right. The scene at your table may look nothing like you imagined it. But you are fighting the good fight. And every healthy meal you serve will leave your family stronger to fight some more.

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