Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Teen Solution to Family Dinner

In preparing a presentation for high school educators recently, I had a "light bulb" moment. Teens are an untapped resource in the family dinner equation. When we think of family dinner, teenagers hardly even enter into the picture. This may be because they have busy schedules, just like their parents, or perhaps parents of teens have already given up on a family table! But the teenager years are a crucial time where family dinner can really help parents and older kids stay connected. Moreover, teens can help make dinner happen -- the Teen Solution to Family Dinner!

Real Benefits for Teens

Kids, teens and adults who have family dinner regularly report feeling more connected, happier and less stressed. This has a special resonance for teens. I was recently shocked and saddened to learn that 1 in 25 teens has attempted suicide and 1 in 8 has had some thoughts of suicide. Teen mood swings are typical, yet teen depression and other mental health problems are a very real threat that parents and educators need to be attuned to. Just the act of having a few meals together, at any time of day, can bring this crucial connection. Family dinner has been shown to be a positive behavioral therapy for teens with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, and other mental health issues.

Furthermore, teens actually like having dinner with their families, despite the stereotypes. They appreciate having a regular time with parents and they report eating more healthful foods with the family. As Tara Parker-Pope, reported in The New York Times Well Blog, a few years ago, even people working in the field can forget.
Despite her research, Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was surprised when her own son was interviewed by a local television station about the family’s regular Friday night meal. A senior in high school at the time, he told the reporter, “I like that my parents expect me to be home, because it makes me feel important.’’

Real Help from Teens

The number one complaint from parents about family dinner is the time it takes to put dinner on the table. The light bulb moment came when I read that one of teens' biggest frustrations was that parents did not let them help more in the kitchen! Clearly, this is a potential win-win for parents and teens. Depending on where you live, teens can help shop, prep for, and/or cook dinner for their families, in addition to the more traditional role of cleaning up. Even if it is just once or twice a week, letting your teen take charge of dinner could mean the difference between having dinner together or not. Actually taking responsibility for making the family meal can be a great way to bolster self-confidence and self-esteem. Teens hate doing "busy-work" and may actually be more willing to cook for the family (an important job) rather than taking out the garbage (easier, but a more menial task).

The teenage years are an excellent time to learn cooking as a real-life survival skill. Unlike grade school children, where cooking is solely "fun," teenagers will actually be cooking for themselves in just a few years. I cooked dinner for my family while my mom worked nights, and I think that's where my confidence in the kitchen came from. I cooked meals throughout college to save money and was often surprised that other people didn't know how to cook. Though I'm able to make much more sophisticated meals now, I started with serving my mom's pre-made crock-pot dinners and re-heating frozen vegetables.

As the mom of two teens, I know having your teen cook dinner might be a hard sell; it definitely depends on the personalities involved. You may even have to scale back your own expectations about what constitutes dinner. (In an article from last year, My Sons, the Sous-Chefs, a NYT writer humblebrags about her sons cooking full meals and manage to critique their technique at the same time!)

What do you think? Is it possible to have teens or tweens actually make family dinner? Would this help your family eat together more often?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Year: Looking Forward on Family Dinner and more

Goodbye 2012, you son of a bitch.
-- My good friend Julian Fleisher's Facebook reflection on New Year's Eve. Yes, it got a lot of "Likes."
With the Hurricane Sandy disaster and the tragic killings in Sandy Hook, the end of 2012 has surely been one of the more difficult times in recent memory. I remember when 9/11 happened; it stopped me in my tracks. As the parent of young children, as a New Yorker, as a professional and political person (I was teaching Public Policy at NYU that year), 9/11 turned my world-view upside down, even though I wasn't "personally" affected. This fall felt a bit like a flashback of that terrible fall 11 years ago. Though I feel deeply lucky and grateful that my family and loved ones are safe and sound, I was still struck by a need to reflect, take stock, and brood over what next steps I should or could take in light of these events.

I haven't been posting very much, in part because I have felt torn. So many of my emotions and thoughts were tied up in issues that were only tangentially related to family dinner, if at all. As a country, we need sane gun control. As world citizens, we must confront and act on climate change. As members of our community, we must look for ways to keep making a difference and help each other, neighbor by neighbor. On a personal level, I knew what to do: give time, give money, give blood, share a political petition or two, give some more money. But, other than a prompt to discuss these matters at the dinner table, how would those topics fit into this blog on family dinner?

Promoting family dinner and spreading the word about healthy eating at home and at school is still at the core of my work and advocacy. But there's a wider universe of solutions that can improve public health and the well-being and resiliency of children and adults in my community. In addition to nutrition and access to good food, we can and should talk about ideas like livable streets, urban gardening, green infrastructure, and ways to support children and adults with better education, safe streets and more economic opportunity.

I am pushing back against my old habits of dividing my alliances, which started back in middle school. I didn't think my "nerdy" school friends could possibly relate my "cooler" neighborhood friends, so I always tried to keep them separate. I've been inadvertently doing that by keeping my community activism separate from my work in promoting healthy food and family dinner. Foolishness really; it is all more connected that we realize. As this world of expanded social networks shows us, more is more. More friends, more connections, more topics clashing is not something to be afraid of. Synergies and big ideas are only possible when you mash-up unexpected skills, talents, and interests. I hope to do more of that this year, both online and off; I'll just have to try to figure out how.

Here's my idea for new beginnings in 2013: I'll keep the blog and the Eatdinner Facebook page focused specifically on healthy eating and the benefits of family dinner. I'll not shy away from my opinions on more diverse topics on Twitter (@eatdinner) or in person. I hope you'll continue to follow me in all these venues and that we can continue our conversations and debates together and learn from each other.

Despite the heartbreaks of 2012, in this new year, I am looking forward. I am re-thinking how to best channel my passions and advocacy into making the world, especially my local community, a better place. I am actively seeking opportunities to improve my community in Brooklyn and New York City--if you live or work nearby, I'd love to connect with you to discuss specific projects, or maybe just have coffee. If we already know each other in the blogosphere or from the neighborhood, feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn. Of course I'd love to have you follow me here, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Here is to a bright, happy and healthy 2013!