Friday, September 24, 2010

Family Dinner Day 2010: Celebrate, Move Forward

Plan to have dinner with your family this Monday, September 27, 2010 as part of CASA's National Family Dinner Day. I know this is preaching to the choir, because many readers and followers are having dinner with their families (almost) every night anyway. Still, take a moment to reflect on why family dinner is important to you and to pat yourself on the back for making the effort for yourself and your family. Then, think about what we can do to promote family dinner more widely.

The media laments that "no one" eats dinner together anymore and that our busy lives are to blame. There are periodic news stories or articles that run down the statistics on why it is important for kids and their families to have meals together and gloss over the various barriers to family dinner: technology, work schedules, sports schedules, commuting, to name a few. Yet, those who actually have dinner with their families can feel isolated, as if modern busy families are all too focused on other tasks to bother with the routine of family dinner.

I have had many people thank me for working on this issue, for publicly supporting family dinner as important. I almost feel like "family dinner" is in the closet. The people who have family dinner are loathe to talk about it, feeling perhaps like they represent some throw-back, traditional family or that they would be "bragging" to admit this special feat.  Then families who aren't able to swing dinner together very often, for whatever reason, may feel guilty or defensive that they aren't meeting some "family dinner standard." So they don't want to talk about it either.

These little demons cut both ways:
"Gosh, you must have such a boring, un-busy life if you can manage family dinner every night. Do you wear an apron too?"
"Do you realize that not having dinner every night with your kids will doom them to failure for life?! Little Johnny will probably be doing drugs by the time he is 10. Are you ready to live with that?"
"Only well-off, upper middle classes families can afford the time and money it takes to put family dinner together."
"Only low-income immigrant families eat dinner together."
"My kids need sports and afterschool activities to be healthy and competitive in high school and college. These things are good for them; how can they possibly do both?"
Guilt, as the new age gurus say, is a useless emotion, though one that I, as a lapsed Catholic who married a Jew, know a lot about. Family dinner is not about guilt; it's not even about doing what's right for your kids, although that is a happy side bonus. I think it's what's right for mom and dad too as part of building a family life. My motto is: try family dinner, make it a priority, give it a chance. Talk about it, share stories and support and recipes with other families. Family dinner norms for 2010 are not a "Norman Rockwell" scene, but something quite different. It's about finding that happy medium of "busy, yet got your priorities straight," a balance that seems so hard to manage for parents today.

The bottom line is: Many families are not eating dinner together and we need to decipher why not. There are obvious reasons: families are busy and crunched for time and money. But like the obesity paradox, where low income families who do not have enough food are also likely to be obese rather than stick-thin, I think there is more to it than that. From a public health perspective, more can and should be done to influence, support, and encourage families at all income levels to make the effort to create healthy family dinner traditions. So promote National Family Dinner Day (09.27.10), live what you preach and spread the message. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Fan Club: School Lunch Reform

Back to school is on my mind as are all the issues around feeding our families breakfast, lunch and dinner. So this post is a shout-out to some of the bloggers, twitter mavens, and policy wonks who are advocating for real change in the lunch room.

School lunch is a personal issue for me now as my youngest started Kindergarten at a large public school this week.  I'm packing her lunch, in a special new lunch box, just like I did for her in pre-K. Much to my chagrin, lunch is turning out to be her least favorite part of the day. The food isn't the issue; it's the same heart-shaped jelly sandwiches or cheese sticks and veggies. The problem is the loud, chaotic nature of being in a big cafeteria, with literally hundreds of kids doing lots of things that might not be eating. It's hard to celebrate and enjoy lunch when you are hunkered down. It makes me think a bit about how environment affects how much and how well kids are eating in the school cafeteria. That hotly-debated chocolate milk is perhaps a comfort food, for reasons beyond sugar.

Most school lunch reformers are trying to change the larger system and improve the food that's presented to all kids as they pass their cafeteria trays through the line. For families that can't pack lunch from home, schools should be able to provide good food. School lunch reform advocates have been making progress locally, with fresh ideas like salad bars and farm-to-school collaborations. Nationally, there is a big push for more money and improved guidelines in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Recess and outdoor play, either after or before lunch, is another important piece of keeping kids healthy and ready to learn during school time. It's great that these issues are finally getting attention and action.

For my own child, I hope I can use her little lunch box as a token of home amid the confusion of "big-kid" school. To be sure, planning and packing healthy from-home lunches everyday is a hassle and it adds to the daily morning juggle. But, like family dinner, I think it's worth it. When a friend asked if I was packing lunch, I expected her to remark on the poor quality of institutional school lunch. Instead, she said, "Food from home can be such a comfort." Words of wisdom.

School Lunch Reformers (and Moms/Dads who pack great lunches!) that I Follow
(Please add to this list in comment section!)
Fed Up With Lunch
One Hungry Mama Back to School Lunch Post
The Lunch Tray 
Healthy Schools Campaign
Time For Lunch Slow Food USA
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution
The Lunch Box
What's Cooking Blog
Brooklyn Food Coalition School Reform Group
Bento Lunch
Today I Ate a Rainbow
Jolly Tomato

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back to School, Back to the Table

Rosh Hashanah Round Challah
Today's our family's first "real" back to school day and our first full week of routines, homework and afterschool classes are ahead. The first official day of school was Wednesday, but that was almost like an orientation day. Several days off for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah seriously challenged the momentum of starting school. Though celebrating the new year, with the required apples, challah, and honey, seemed especially appropriate on Wednesday night, the four-day break from school makes today feels like the first time all over again.

The slight chill in the air also hints that summer is really over. We did eat dinner together over the summer, but things were much more relaxed. The norm was eating late or eating very light meals because the older kids were away at camp or with friends. There were many days when less than the five of us were at the dinner table.

Now it feels like back to business. Dinners every weeknight with the challenge of making enough food for a growing teen and tween who have sports practice 4 out of 5 nights and are seriously hungry. It's like rapid re-entry into the days of balancing work, homework, activities, dinner and getting to bed at a decent time, all with the stress and emotions that school can bring. I'm trying to remember how it is possible to cram all this into the few hours left at the end of the day.

Still, it's an exciting time of new beginnings. On Wednesday night, my kids were all aflutter with stories. They were actually shouting over each other to be heard and to tell their tales. We had to calm it down on several occasions to make sure everyone got their turn. Our youngest speaks very slowly and deliberately to be understood, and the older ones could barely mask their frustration as we let her have the floor. This is really what family dinner is about. The give and take and the chance to share the day: to be proud, to pose questions, to listen to others, to give and get feedback on these new experiences, knowing you have this touchstone at home.

La Shana Tova and Happy New Year! To great school years, to great dinners, to great accomplishments for all! Love, peace and happiness above all!