Monday, October 30, 2006

Family Dinner - It Doesn't Have to be Hard

Panera Bread, in conjunction with Take Back Your Time, is running a campaign to help families Reclaim Dinnertime.

Of course, it's a PR effort designed to bring you into their restaurants, but the point is well-taken: Why do I feel family dinner is only family dinner if we're at home, sitting around a homemade meal, complete with real dishes and silverware? There's no reason we can't reconnect at a reasonably quiet restaurant, particularly one where you can refill your own coffee. Plus, Panera really does have healthy choices for children and adults. They offer Horizon milk and organic yogurt with the kid's meals. But be careful to read the nutritional information - I was surprised by how many calories were in most of the salads.

This idea might work with older children, but anyone with a child under 6 will tell you that eating out is more of a battle than a relaxing family dinner. Young children are more interested in exploring than conversation, more likely to throw food or spill drinks than eat quietly between answering questions about their day.
Families of young children can take a tip from stay-at-home moms, though. If you visit any family-friendly restaurant - read: Anyplace with an indoor playground - you'll find scores of stay-at-home moms sipping coffee while their children run wild on the playground like the natural savages they are. You can actually have a friendly conversation for maybe 10 minutes without being interrupted. There's no reasons families can't use this same space in the evenings so parents have a chance to reconnect.

Another idea might be to pick up a healthy meal to-go and then enjoy it at home.

If you think family dinners are overrated, be sure to peruse the Panera site. Here are a few facts about the impact of family dinners on children:

One study found that meals at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems in children. That makes family mealtimes more influential in these areas than sports, studying, school and even church!

A federally-funded study of teenagers found a strong association between family dinners five or more times per week with at least one parent and academic success, lower rates of drug and alcohol use, suicide and psychological adjustment.

Family dinners are also linked to healthier eating patterns for children and a reduced incidence of smoking.

If you're not up on take out, you can always pick up a roast chicken or pork loin at your local grocery, along with salad fixings. Even children as young as three can be involved in helping you prepare the meal - kids love to wash lettuce, use the salad spinner and help set the table. It's tempting to keep young children out of the meal preparation, since you can always do it faster and better than they can, but there are three important reasons you should involve even preschoolers:
1. It gives them a feeling of belonging and importance, so it builds self-esteem.
2. It lets them know they're expected to pitch in and contribute to the family chores.
3. They like to help. A lot.

So. What's for dinner tonight?

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