Manicotti vs. Marijuana: The Case for Family Dinner

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Guest Post by Alison

What’s for dinner???  Of all questions, that has to be the most frequent one ringing across the nation between the hours of 5 and 7.  It is usually spoken by hungry children to tired parents who would rather collapse in a chair than grate cheese.  Who would rather collapse in a chair than boil water.  Who would rather collapse in a chair than…anything.  It is no wonder with the breakneck pace of our lives that the sit-down family dinner seems to be going the way of the dinosaurs.  Before you load up the troops for a cruise through the drive-through or send everyone off to watch TV with their frozen entrees, you may want to snack on some of the latest head-turning research out of Columbia University about family dinner time and substance abuse.

Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (5 – 7 times per week), those who eat with their families infrequently (fewer than 3 times per week) are…

4

Times more likely to use tobacco

2

Times more likely to use alcohol

2 ½

Times more likely to use marijuana

Obviously, researchers can’t prove whether it was the food, the time, the conversation, or some other factor that seemed to insulate the dinner-eating families from substance abuse, but there is a mountain of similar research in this area.  In addition to helping diminish substance abuse, having frequent family dinners is connected to lower incidence of eating disorders in girls, higher grades, and many other benefits.  There is something about eating dinner together that really does help families stay strong and youth make good choices.  Here are a few suggestions to take back family meal time.

1) Plan.  You already know it’s worth it…so no excuses.  Some people like to take a few minutes a week to sit down and decide what to have for dinner each night.  Others like to just keep a general list of possibilities and keep staples on hand.  A little effort in planning helps keep you off the phone with the pizza man.  For Menu Plan ideas click here.

2) Cook Smart.  Try to group meals together so you can use leftovers for the next meal.  Cook a chicken, then use the leftover meat in a soup the next day.  Make a big batch of black beans, and enjoy tacos, wraps, and salad during the week.  Try cooking everything in doubles and freezing half of it, or having one whirlwind cooking day and enjoying a month of freezer meals.  Or, just start the month with basics like frozen ground beef and chicken already divided, cooked, seasoned, and stored in the freezer to make meal preparation easier.  A crock pot might be a smart choice for you if you don’t like cooking with hungry kids riding on your legs.   However you cook, cook smart!

3) Turn off the TV.  Consuming media along with your taco tells children they are not as interesting to you as what’s on the tube.  Turn it off and keep it off during meal times.  Ask meaningful or silly questions, discuss the good and bad parts of your day, and see how everyone is feeling about life.  In a word, TALK!  Maybe your family is the type that likes to discuss the latest presidential debate, or perhaps your kids are more into descriptions of which kids in which class made which rude noises.  Whatever works for you!  Just be positive, supportive, and interested.  You can’t TiVo your family and many of us have sadly discovered that there are no reruns.

4) Lighten up.  Maybe choose one day a month, and then work up to one day a week to try to do something out of the ordinary.  On Monday nights, I try to add a bit of pizzaz to our family dinner.  My kids love trying to eat Chinese food with chopsticks, or trying to stomach octopus or oysters.  We’ve had pancakes in our PJ’s for dinner, and we’ve eaten tinfoil dinners in homemade tents in the living room.  Most of these meals are easy ones; just a few minutes of planning makes them memorable.  Here are three more ideas to get your creative juices flowing…

Candlelight: I received a set of crystal candle sticks at a bridal shower with some good advice from my aunt.  She said when you are make something that doesn’t turn out well, just set the table with nice plates, turn off the lights, and light a candle.  Give it a try!  Everything looks better by candlelight, and suddenly dinner is special.

Dinner and a Song: Is there a song you can link up to what you are eating?  Try Indian music with your curry, or Mexican music with your enchiladas.  I loved playing the fabulously weird song by Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband, Corn Dog, while we ate the last-minute dinner by the same name.  My kids smiled all through dinner when I made a monster-sized cheeseburger and we gobbled it up to the strains of His Cheeseburger from our VeggieTales Collection.

Piggy Dinner:  Maybe you feel like every dinner is already a piggy dinner, but at least this one will be authorized.  Put a disposable plastic tablecloth on the table, tie bibs or aprons on family members, wash hands well, and serve a messy dinner like spaghetti without any plates or utensils.  If the thoughts of this activity makes you hyperventilate, you can also bring the party outside.  After dinner, play Pass the Pigs.

Penne pasta, alfredo, meat sauce, salad, and a big, fun mess!

Hopefully, these simple tips will help bring a little more joy back to an important family tradition.  And if the statistics are correct, you just may be serving up a little drug prevention as well.

America’s drug problem is not going to be solved in court rooms, legislative hearing rooms or classrooms, by judges, politicians or teachers. It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables–by parents and families.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

Try this today: Start simple!  Right now, decide what is for dinner tomorrow.  What do you need to do to get it on the table?  What can you do to make that meal more enjoyable for your family?  Even small improvements will go a long way in blessing your family.

Have you had success with family mealtimes?  What creative meals have you made for your family?     Do you remember any special meals from your growing-up years? Post your comments below!

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