Today’s typical family tends to follow a brutal schedule—one in which work, school and extracurricular activities consume nearly all of Monday through Friday, and errands and other odds and ends of daily living practically devour Saturday.
That means Sunday is often the day that sees a little respite.
Of course, the start of the week is, for some, a day of worship, rest and relaxation or a time to catch up on everything else that’s been left by the wayside. But that also means it can be a great day to come together with loved ones—maybe just immediate family, possibly extended family or even good friends—for a special meal, the Sunday dinner.
If that sounds like an impossible feat to pull off, relax. It’s not as difficult as you might think, and the payoff is considerable, says Lisa Kandell, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in pediatric nutrition at Scottsdale Healthcare Shea. After all, she says, research shows that family meals are an important component for building strong family bonds and all kinds of good things stem from them.
“Family meals help to decrease the risk of unhealthy behaviors, give kids a sense of identity and promote self-confidence, and as a result, they do better in school and they’re more engaged,” she says. “It’s a way to say, ‘You’re important, and what you’re doing is important.’ ”
So, start planning your Sunday dinner now, using some of Kandell’s top pointers such as these:
‘Just pick a day’
OK, so your Sundays are packed and hosting a meal at any time on that day isn’t realistic? No problem, says Kandell. The truth is that the day doesn’t matter as much as the doing. If gathering around the table on Saturday morning or gathering around the TV for Monday Night Football or a favorite show works better for your family, by all means, have your “Sunday dinner” then.
“Just pick a day,” she says encouragingly. “Just start with one, and that will lead to more.”
Make it fast…or slow
The phrase “Sunday dinner” means very different things to different people. For some, it’s a lively gathering with chatty relatives at the grandparents’ house and a table overflowing with chicken, corn and potato salad. For others, it’s a leisurely feast that extends from afternoon until evening or just a quiet evening repast of courtesy of the slow cooker that’s been simmering all day.
Your family’s idea of Sunday (or Wednesday) dinner might be takeout pizza, and that’s fine, says Kandell, who is also a pro-pizza kind of gal, noting that the dish is healthy because it not only has grains and lycopene-heavy tomato sauce, but the more veggies used as toppings, the better!
Kandell also likes the idea of a taco bar, an omelet night or even a fill-in-the-blanks formula consisting of your three favorite vegetables and one protein, all served over pasta or rice.
“Or make a salad,” she offers. “Meals don’t have to take [hours] to prep.”
Get ’em all involved
Parents, encourage togetherness by making Sunday dinner an all-hands-on-deck affair. Older kids can dice tomatoes, or even cook the chicken or beef for the taco bar, she says, while younger siblings might be able to handle grating cheese, shredding lettuce and setting the table.
And don’t be afraid to inject a little fun into the mix: use cookie cutters to cut omelets into fun shapes or suggest a theme for dinner like “Finger Foods.” Kids can also help by planning the meal and assisting with grocery shopping, which also helps them grasp concepts ranging from healthy food choices to consumerism and economics.
Enjoy those ingredients
Eating should be a pleasurable activity, but many kids—and their parents—treat it almost like a race. Remember to slow down and chew food thoroughly so that the brain can get the signal that your stomach is full.
“Chew thoroughly and don’t inhale your food,” says Kandell.
Engage each other
It’s great if conversation just flows naturally, but that’s not always the case. Try breaking out some board games or family photo albums, or launch into storyteller mode and regale everyone with stories of childhood adventures and misadventures and long-ago neighborhoods or even corny jokes. If a child is artistically talented or musically gifted, perhaps they’d jump at the chance to perform for the family.
Or, Kandell says, take a different tact and ask your kids about their hopes in life by positing, “What if you had three wishes?” Everyone loves to talk about themselves, and kids are no different, so ask them about their favorite singers, actors and school subjects. Just remember to keep things upbeat.
“You want to keep it fun so talking about grades—unless it’s a positive thing—may be a one-on-one conversation you have later,” she says.
Wrapping it up
Keep the togetherness even when it comes to cleaning up after the meal, Kandell says. So roll up your sleeves and help them bus the table and package up the leftovers or offer to wash dishes while they dry.
“Kids don’t like to be told what to do, so do it with them,” she says. “Do it as a team.”
For more ideas and recipes, visit one of Kandell’s favorite websites, The Family Dinner Project at thefamilydinnerproject.org.
By // Gremlyn Waddell