Return of the Family Dinner: Food for Body, Mind & Soul

For the better part of the last decade,  pundits and nutritionists and social scientists have been lamenting the “death of the family dinner.”  Certainly it’s something I addressed as early as 2000,  in my book, the Food Allergy Field Guide, in my Kitchen Zen reflections.

Eating in America,” I noted at the time, ” once a major social endeavor, has been reduced to “power meals” and “fast food.” Our reverence of and appreciation for the fruits of the earth, our connection with the very essence of life itself, with nourishment, has been severed in our headlong rush to get to wherever it is we’re in a hurry to go.

“Whether this same frenetic rush has anything to do with the increasing prevalence of food sensitivities in the U.S.; whether it drives our hurry to feed our children solid foods in infancy to get them along the road to maturity faster, or fuels our predisposition to eat a lot of the same, mass produced, allergen-laden prepared foods and thus create our own food sensitivities, is probably better left to private speculation. “

Most holidays, of course, many of us gather together – sometimes grudgingly, sometimes happily – for a big family dinner.  With Independence Day just around the corner, many of us will come together for picnics and cook-outs and meals together with family and friends.  But for the better part of the year, eating on the go was more the norm.

Then came Jamie Oliver, the Slow Food movement, locavores , and Michelle Obama’s health initiative and the White House vegetable garden , and slowly  the sundry and varied American family is moving back to the dinner table – or at least so reports the Christian Science Monitor this week, in their cover story, “Back to the Dinner Table.”

Bolstered by scientific data and an intensifying popular buzz, ” says CSM. “the family dinner has returned full force as the most important time of the day for many, and as the defining – nay, sacred – family activity. …Studies show that roughly half of families eat together most nights. And while that number holds fairly steady, as a movement, family dinner seems to be reaching critical mass. Opinion leaders – like Tiger Mother Amy Chua, TV personality Cynthia McFadden, medical ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel – now dish about their personal experiences in The New York Times. The Huffington Post suggests table talk topics. “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary producer Laurie David takes the style elements up a notch in her book “The Family Dinner.” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg breaks from motherhood’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy to fess up: She’s always left work at 5:30 to eat with her children. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow spills in Harper’s Bazaar that she’s doing dinner for her husband and kids. The food-conscious Obamas share their own family dinner habits.”

There’s even a national “Family Day,” held annually on September 24, with the goal of informing parents, “that the engagement fostered during frequent family dinners is an effective tool to help keep America’s kids substance free. Dinner Makes A Difference!”  And the Family Dinner Project,a start-up grassroots movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter, ” which notes, “Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.”

Who can argue with that?  Not me!  Family dinners have always been a cherished part of our lives.  Almost every day of every week, we have a family dinner, with whomever is home at any given time.  In our family today, that includes my husband and myself, at least two young adults, and a grandparent.  Occasionally a friend or other relative joins in.  But there is rarely less than four people at our table for dinner, and usually five or more.   What I find particularly interesting is that even on those occasions when I’m feeling preoccupied or disinclined to eat, one of my now grown children will gently insist I come to dinner – a pleasant turning of the (dinner) table!

Because the fact is, sharing meals with those we love is vital for our health and well-being, for our families and our society.  The CSM noted at 2005-06 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York linked family dinner “to a host of good outcomes for children”. Among the benefits noted by that and more recent studies, eating dinner together at least five times a week

  • lowers teen use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana;
  • lowers the risk of obesity, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy;
  • improves nutrition, physical and mental health, grades, and relationships with parents;
  • helps adults felt better about their families and jobs.

Additionally, Marshall Duke, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, told CSM, “family stories told at the table build the resilience kids need to navigate a recession-weary, post-9/11 world.  The more that kids know about their family background, the more resilient they are. And not just about the positives, but about the times the family had trouble and people came through.”

Clearly, the Family Dinner nourishes much more than the body.  It feeds the mind and the soul, as well, and builds a foundational story of who we are together, that will sustain us even when we’re apart.   I’m glad the tables are turning for the Family Dinner!

Chicken Nugget Girl and the Fate of the Free World

From the annals of weird but true stories comes this “nugget” from the UK:  A 17 year old British girl who has eaten almost nothing but chicken nuggets since she was two years old, collapsed recently and had to be taken to a hospital, where she was found to be suffering from anemia and swollen veins in her tongue.

Where to start with this one…

First, I did some rudimentary research to confirm it really was a true story, coming from The Sun , and all.  But sure ‘nuff, Stacey Irvine, who looks relatively okay, has in fact eaten primarily processed chicken nuggets for the last 15 years of her life, with fries (or chips, across the pond) and the occasional culinary venture into toast for breakfast and the rare potato chip for a snack.  Doctors call hers a “beige” diet, a blandly descriptive enough term.

I’ve got one of those monochromatic eaters – she has Asperger’s Syndrome , in which a limited diet is fairly common. But as a young adult who was exposed to a wide variety of foods at a young age and who hails from a family that generally likes to try new foods,   her diet ranges to some reasonably healthy shades of yellow and red,  and includes the proper amounts of most of the necessary nutrients.  Interestingly, she’s fond of chicken nuggets, too, but is also well aware that while chickens have wings and breasts and legs – nowhere does their anatomy include a “nugget.”

“McDonald’s chicken nuggets are my favourite,” Irvine told the Sun. (I’ll keep their spelling, for the full effect). “ I share 20 with my boyfriend with chips.

“But I also like KFC and supermarket brands. My main meal is always chicken nuggets every day.”

While Irvine’s OD-ing on chicken nuggets on her bed of happy meal toys, on this side of the Atlantic Mrs. Obama is hitting the streets and neighborhood schools with her healthy eating campaign and the USDAs My Plate in hand.  Her efforts are intended to showcase USDA improvements to school meal requirements that increase the availability of health food choices, and also seek to limit the total number of calories in an individual meal.

Those chicken nuggets Irvine is so fond of – and which plenty of public schools serve – contain 58g of fat and 926 calories in a 20 nugget meal – exceeding daily recommended intakes of 56g fat, and comprising almost half of the daily recommended 2,000 calories a day.  If that’s not scary, maybe this video  of what’s actually in that chicken nugget might do the trick. At the very least, the pink boa constrictor of mechanically separated chicken should be sufficiently horrifying.  (Although the YouTube closed captioning on the piece is rather entertaining.)

But maybe it’s not horrifying enough for American sensibilities.  Healthy eating guru Jamie Oliver, a TED Prize winner with a winning way of getting people to reconnect with good food, tried one of his food deconstruction programs with a group of American school children a couple of years ago.  After carefully separating a whole chicken into its normally edible parts, Oliver then dramatically processed the remaining carcass, bones and all,  in a blender while describing how chicken nuggets are made.  Presenting the pink glop of chicken parts puree to the children, he asked them, “Who would eat this now?” After just a moment’s hesitation, every hand shot up.

A clearly thunderstruck Oliver then cooked up the patties and served them to the children, who happily ate them.  Reflecting on his failed experiment later, he said, “What’s scary is that we’ve brainwashed our children so completely, so even though they know something is disgusting and gross,  they’ll still eat it if it’s in that friendly little shape.”

Humans are creatures of habit and convenience. Give us the two together, and we’re set, even if it kills us, which eating out of convenience and habit might well do.   So the battle for the Western world’s waist line and cholesterol levels rages on – with Jiminy Crickets like Mrs. Obama and Jamie Oliver perched on our shoulders cautioning common sense and restraint and beckoning us to the joys of healthy eating, and the fast food foxes luring us to the next donut and the promise of the immediate gratification of corn syrupy endorphins coursing sluggishly through our clogged arteries.

Maybe if we could see it for what it really is: Our lack of self control in our eating habits is at least partly symptomatic of a lack of control in other aspects of our lives, which leaves us open to manipulation and control by others. We fancy ourselves a “free people.” But we’re not. We’re often slaves to what anyone wants to sell us, from politics to processed poultry.

Pleasure Island is making chicken nugget donkeys of us all, and it will continue to do so until we see it for what it really is, take control of our health and our lives,  and truly become free.

Behold -The Food Plate!

The USDA squashed its food pyramid this week, in favor of — a plate. The new “My Plate” is a bit of a  throw-back to days of simpler eating, and a welcome visual respite from the muddled “My Pyramid” of 2005 that sometimes looked more like a dietary landfill than a plan for healthy eating.

I first got up close and personal with the USDAs nutrition recommendations in elementary school in the 1960s, when eating advice consisted of a very short list of the “Four Basic Food Groups.”  Oils and sugars didn’t play into the picture very much, although I probably got a decent dose of both, alternating between the chorizos and pastelitos of my Cuban family in Miami, and the fried chicken and apple pies of my Anglo relatives in New Jersey.  I also got a really healthy dose of the outdoors, and was outside more than I was ever in.

Over time, the food groups became more partisan, with vegetables and fruits going their separate ways, oil rising to the top and grains holding the whole thing up on their wheaty shoulders.  After my son was born in the early 1990s, I was reacquainted with nutrition in a new way. Plagued by health and development problems from the time he began eating solid foods, our little boy provided the impetus for learning about things like celiac disease and lactose intolerance.   The food pyramid was cause for angst, because the very foundations of healthy eating – grains – were apparently the very thing that made my son ill.

In the course of writing my first book, the Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families (Savory Palate, 2006, 2nd edition), I made the acquaintance of the USDAs new pyramid, which went from fairly self-explanatory images of food to a color coded circus tent beneath a set of stairs upon which a gender neutral stick figure ascended to nowhere.  It had the same visual affect as wearing horizontal stripes with vertical, and made about as much sense.

In 2005, they threw all the food down at the bottom of the rainbow, apparently to mollify those of us having trouble with the color coding.  When I updated my book in 2006, I made a half hearted attempt to throw support behind the new pyramid, but when the nutrition info was cut from the appendix for printing reasons, I felt a little relieved.

I think I got the message of healthy eating across just fine in my Kitchen Zen reflections:

Now you have a food-sensitive child. Now you have to look at the food you eat. Now you have to reduce it down to the bare essentials, to its purest forms, and distilled to a non-allergenic essence of simplicity.  Behold food! From the ground, from trees, from vines and marshy fields and golden meadows. It is beautiful! The textured skin of a carrot, the earthy odor of a baking potato, the fragrance of a smooth-skinned apple, the savory aroma of seasoned rice simmering quietly on the stove.

As you learn to prepare foods your food-sensitive child and your whole family can enjoy, take the opportunity to engage in a little kitchen Zen. There is elegance to pure, wholesome foods that nothing in a box or a bag can ever approach. You don’t have to be the Galloping Gourmet to appreciate that elegance, or to use your kitchen time, whether it’s daily, or just one day a week …, to regain time for yourself and for your family, and a sense of beauty and richness that will nourish you far outside the walls of your kitchen. It really doesn’t get much simpler, more nutritious or more satisfying than that.

The USDA finally seems to agree, getting back to their own dietary bare essentials with the simple elegance of a plate.  No dietary hierarchies, no fancy representative clip art, no iconic walking people, no piles of food; just a plate, suggesting proportional servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. No one food has precedence over another – they all share the plate in interdependent coexistence, towards the common good of health and well-being.

To balance calories, the USDA advises simply, “Enjoy your food, but eat less” and “Avoid oversized portions.”   The rest of their healthy eating recommendations are similarly common sense and simple – choose foods with lower amounts of sodium, and drink water instead of sugary drinks, among other guidance.

It’s hard to believe a government agency can simplify anything, let alone health recommendations. But the USDA seems to have done just that, and they have my kudos.  Hopefully more people will take the Plate to heart, and find the joy of Kitchen Zen in their own lives.