Nowadays, after school sport, play dates, working overtime, activities, and a range of other scheduling conflicts mean family meal times are being squeezed out as we spend huge lumps of time in the car and less time at the family dinner table.
It’s not unusual for a child to be given a high sugar breakfast snack in the car during the mad rush morning commute. On the way home from a long day at work, it’s just so convenient to jump in a line at your nearest drive thru and secure a fast food meal instead of cooking.
Even when all family members are at home, research shows that more than a third of Australian families eat their meals on the sofa while watching TV rather than sitting together at the dinner table.
The problem with sitting down and eating in front of the TV is that it can lead to mindlessness eating. We’re blissfully unaware of not only what we are consuming, but also how much. We are autopilot eating.
Instead of cherishing our meals, we are distracted by technology, be it TV, mobile phones, games, and because of that, we are not fully appreciating and enjoying the food we are consuming.
Now I’m not saying we have to inspect everything we eat and have a “Sherlock Holmes” approach to food, but simple enjoyment and time spent with others whilst eating is joyful and nourishing. When you’re not distracted by technology you can take time to truly taste your meal and experience each bite from start to finish.
As juggling work and domestic commitments becomes increasingly hectic, time-strapped parents are reporting they simply don’t have the energy to prepare a home-cooked meal. However, when looking at the research, the benefits of having regular family dinner times are just too big to ignore.
Studies show that children who eat dinner with their families are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, even when given the option in their parent’s absence, and less likely to pig out on soda and fast foods. Impressionable children are also more likely to choose wholesome foods when family dinners allow for discussions about nutrition and the provision of healthy foods.
A sit-down family meal is the perfect opportunity for parents to expose children to a range of healthy foods, developing their palates and allowing them to explore more flavours. It’s also a fanatstic way to ensure portion control, as serving sizes in restaurants and fast foods continue to balloon. The truth is, everyone, adults and kids alike, when presented with more food, will eat more and it’s very difficult to say no.
There’s a huge positive influence on mental health when you’re enjoying regular family meals. Children who eat with their families around the dinner table have been found to feel less depressed and develop eating disorders.
When a child is feeling down after a tough day, a family dinner may act as an intervention, particularly in the case of eating disorders, as abnormal eating patterns can be detected and halted early on. The research goes on to find that teens who enjoy family meals are less likely to smoke, drink and abuse drugs, and are more likely to perform well academically.
The benefits to adults is also huge, with mums and dads who have demanding jobs reporting that family meal times leave them feeling less stressed.
With a little planning, enjoying meals at home can be more cost-effective option than eating out. Sitting down at the table for a meal with the family is all about sharing the food we love with those we treasure most.
I’ve reimagined some of my favourite comforting dishes that take me back to my childhood, Shepherd’s Pie, Chicken Noodle Soup and Nachos.
Here are my top ten affordable family meals that are not only simple to create, but that are packed full of nutrition, and will leave every family member licking their fingers and asking for seconds
Shepherd’s pie is a classic British dish that pretty much everyone you speak to will have their own way of making. My healthy variation is incredibly simple and relatively fail-proof. Make sure you buy the best quality mince you can afford, as it really makes the difference in this dish. Cauliflower mash is a delicious and high-fibre alternative to the classic, heavy white potato variation. Kids even it enjoy it! Give it a shot and you won’t be disappointed.
Healthy family eating is not about deprivation and it doesn’t mean that yummy dishes like nachos need to be abolished. These angelic nachos from my new book Eat Clean, Green and Vegetarian are an easy to make healthy alternative to traditional nachos that are often laden with dodgy ingredients and leave you feeling bloated afterwards. Nachos can be enjoyed regardless of how old you are, a true family favourite in every sense. Best of all, nachos are super fast to prepare and a low cost option. That’s dinner sorted.
Forget Asian takeout, this Rocking Fried Rice recipe is just as flavoursome as the MSG and oil-loaded alternative. Coconut oil is a healthy plant-based saturated fat that is unique in that it does not oxidize at higher temperatures, making it the ideal cooking oil. Tamari sauce is a wheat-free alternative to soy sauce and nowadays is easy to find in most supermarkets and health food stores. This is another easy family staple that contains the perfect balance of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Like my nacho recipe, it takes only a few minutes to prepare and the leftovers can be refrigerated, so you’re sorted for lunchboxes for the next few days too!
A winter family favourite, Chicken Noodle Soup is perhaps one of the coziest meals you can enjoy. It may bring back childhood memories of being at home, snuggled up with your doona in bed. But who says you have to be on a bed holiday to enjoy chicken soup? With this easy recipe, you’ll get delicious and quick results without having to slave over a hot stove for hours. Not to mention the slurpability factor which is just out-of-this-world. A great option for when the family feels like something a bit lighter. It’s from my Supercharged Food for Kids book.
For when you have a bit more time over the weekend, this recipe for a rich, Mexican Beef casserole is sure to leave everyone feeling satisfied and impressed. The ingredients can be varied according to what's at hand and personal preferences. It's best to use the best cuts of beef you can afford, cook it slowly, and the amount of vegetables can be increased to feed more people if you’re entertaining. The casserole can also be topped with sliced or mashed sweet potato to create a shepherds pie for the ultimate winter comfort food. That’s two meals for the price of one!
Few things are better than a delicious roast chicken. When selecting a chicken, I recommend selecting free-range or organic. This recipe is a firm family favourite, with the roast chicken being made extra juicy by the slow roasting process. The flavours compliment each other so well, with the perfect combination of salty and tang provided by the garlic, salt and lemon. Even kids, who are usually not fans of garlic don’t bat an eyelid when gobbling up this meal. Serve it with some roasted or steamed veggies during winter or a fresh side salad during the warmer months.
Scrambled eggs are hands down the ultimate Sunday morning family breakfast. Eggs are one of nature’s perfect foods. They are an encapsulated source of very high-quality protein and very high-quality fat for optimal brain development. Best of all, they taste great, they cook up super-fast, and they have a lot of health benefits including helping you to stay fuller longer. This recipe is a breakfast staple in my home and can make a quick and healthy protein-rich meal any time of the day. It’s also is a handy way to sneak veggies into your child’s diet first thing in the morning.
This easy to prepare recipe will make you question why you ever opted for Chinese take away. It contains all those fresh Asian flavours you know and love, with none of the anti-inflammatory fat, additives and preservatives found in most Asian takeaway sauces. This is a nutritious meal for those family members who struggle to get their daily veggie intake, as the rich, flavoursome sauce disguises any vestige of fresh produce. Serve this dish with a side of steamed brown rice or cooked quinoa to complete your meal.
Pikelets work well for children as they are smaller than a traditional pancake and become a practical and fun finger food for them. I’ve chosen to add chia seeds in this recipe because they are a delicious super food, packed with Omega 3s and ridiculously high in antioxidants. They’re extremely versatile and easy to use too. Some great ways to include them in your family’s diet is by adding them to smoothies, sprinkling them on top of yoghurt or cereal, tossing them in your muffin mix or making these delicious pikelets. When mixed with water, chia seeds become gelatinous. In this form you can use them as an egg substitute in your baking recipes. Creating a family meal together can also be a great way to bond, and this recipe is so simple that the kiddies can easily get involved in the preparation, just ensure to keep them at a safe distance from the pan when it’s time to cook the pikelets.
No Family meal is complete without a chocolate cake for dessert. Who can resist a rich, chocolate and berry dessert that is completely guilt-free? This is one dessert that continually gets the thumbs up from my Eat Clean Green and Vegetarian recipe book. I’ve included cacao in this recipe to give it chocolaty oomph. A hype-worthy quality of cacao is that it can be used to make chocolate, the most popular food craved by many due to its unique chemistry, taste and sensory properties. Note to you, the commercial chocolate treats that you’ve previously loved will taste like cardboard compared to the lively flavours of this homemade desert! Serve this for dessert and see how everyone starts requesting family meal times every day.
One last thing …
So, regardless of what your family may look like (single parent, adoptive parents, childless), enjoying the classic, treasured recipes from our childhood is something that everyone is entitled to. Here’s to family dinnertimes making a comeback!