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Bring Back the Dinner Hour

Guest Post by Drew Myron:

Johnny is headed to the ball field, grabbing a burger on the way. Jane is at the computer, clicking through MySpace and eating a bag of chips. Dad is working late again. And Mom is harried as she idles at the drive-thru for another windshield meal.

What’s happened to the family dinner? Caught between Father Knows Best intentions (June at the stove, pressed and perky) and overscheduled realities (ballet at 4pm, baseball at 6pm, homework in-between) the dinner hour now seems just a mid-century mishap.

But according to recent groundbreaking studies, we need to press pause and bring back the dinner hour. The family meal — the kind that anchors kids and parents in a sense of steady reliability — is a simple action that delivers great results. Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to drink, do drugs, battle depression or develop eating disorders.

A simple but important ritual, the family meal provides critical grounding to kids in a hurry-up world where food is increasingly fast but not healthy, over-sized but undervalued. Family dinners provide a safe and comfortable place for relaxed lessons on everything from social conduct to world issues. Just as important, the dinner hour can be a fun event, a time to unwind, reflect and share. Eating regular, interesting dinners encourages new tastes and healthy eating habits while building strong family character.

The most illuminating study hails from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Researchers found that only 25 percent of 17-year-olds regularly took part in family meals. And yet, family meals are a critical component in adolescent development.

While the benefits are numerous, the practical reality of gathering the family in a fixed place to enjoy a nourishing meal can feel like an arduous task. Admittedly, the June Cleaver dinner hour was born in an era when women had more time to cook, children lived less orchestrated lives and husbands were home each night at 6. Priorities change when the chicken dinner is still a frozen notion as you unravel in traffic and the kids are on the cell phone whining to grab a pizza with friends.

“We’re not advocating a return to some Neverland of meat loaf and ruffled aprons,” notes Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals. “Today, supper must be flexible, reflecting who we are at this time in our culture, in our lives. The immediate goal of the family dinner is to get more genuine pleasure out of being together. When that happens, the other benefits will follow.”

But preparing weekly meals can be daunting, acknowledges Ann Bender, a harried mother of three who brainstormed meal solutions with her equally rushed business partner, Karen Hutcherson. Tired of fast-food meals, microwaved disasters and picky children, they founded Relish! an online menu service designed to provide the plan for busy families.

For as little as $6 per month, subscribers to www.relishrelish.com receive weekly dinner menus with easy-to-follow grocery lists. Best of all for busy families, the “simple-gourmet” dinners take just 30 minutes to prepare.

“If you have a plan, wonderful dinners will follow,” says Bender, cofounder of Relish! “Many people enjoy cooking but it’s the weekly plan that is so intimidating. This is where Relish! comes in. When you buy for the week, everything is on hand so there are no last-minute grocery runs, and the recipes are clear, easy and inspired.”

It’s time to make dinner a family time once again, writes Weinstein.

“Nowadays, in magazines and in TV commercials, cooking wonderful food for our loved ones is presented as misery, or at best, some irksome chore,” she says. “Whereas sitting in traffic so we can stand in line to grab a wrapped-up, standardized, nutrionally questionable meal is great fun?”

For more information about Relish! online menu service, go to www.relishrelish.com. To purchase Miriam Weinstein’s book, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, visit Amazon.com.

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