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Reap the benefits of family mealtimes

Prairie Fare: Regular family meals can strengthen relationships and help children do better in school

Having a meal together as a family provides countless benefits to children and adults alike.

Should we go see a hawk?” my son asked after we finished eating dinner with the rest of our family. He was about 11 at the time.

“Sure. Maybe we will see Spock on the way,” I replied.

Back then, my son and I had to be a little devious about using words that rhymed with “walk” when we went on regular walks around our neighbourhood. My younger daughter, who was three at the time, wanted to go along with us if she heard the word “walk.”

However, she wouldn’t walk, ride in a stroller or drive a tricycle. She wanted to be carried on our back or shoulders. We sneaked out of the house to avoid carrying her for two or three miles. We usually brought her to the park when we returned.

Thinking back, my daughter had this process figured out. She liked the playground at the park.

Back then, my son was barely up to my shoulders. Then he grew to be “nose high.” Reaching my height was a significant milestone. We would stand back to back so he could show me that he was catching up with my height.

Then he grew taller than both of us parents, and suddenly all his jeans were “high-water pants.”

Yes, we were providing nutritious food at all those family meals, but I began wondering just how tall this kid was going to get. He stopped growing at six foot three, about eight inches taller than I am.

Now we mark another significant milestone in our household: our son’s college graduation. We are proud of the young man he has become.

In looking back, those regular family mealtimes and after-dinner walks were beneficial in many ways. Eating together was a family tradition that allowed us to take a break to catch up with our three kids and their busy lives. You can learn a lot about your child’s life by going on walks, too.

On the nutrition front, meals eaten with family members include less fat, less pop, and more fruits and vegetables. Family meals also tend to be higher in calcium, fibre and other essential nutrients. Children who eat balanced meals with their families are less likely to become overweight.

Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that children in families who share three or more meals together per week are 24 per cent more likely to consume healthful foods. Additionally, the AAP researchers showed the odds of being overweight or obese decrease 12 per cent for children who eat at least three family meals together weekly.

Regular family meals can strengthen relationships. Gathering as a family creates structure and acts as a protective factor, especially for teens. As a result of this family connection, children are less likely to engage in risky behaviour such as smoking, drinking alcohol or trying drugs.

Family meals can promote better academic performance. When children get proper nutrition, their brains and bodies are fuelled. They are better able to pay attention in school and learn.

When they eat with their families, young children learn new words and expand their vocabularies. By the time they are teens, children who eat regularly with their families do better academically than their peers who do not.

While meals eaten together in a restaurant “count” as family meals, making meals at home can save money. In many cases, you can prepare a meal for a family for the same price as one entree in a sit-down restaurant.

In January, my NDSU Extension Service colleagues in family science/finance and I launched “The Family Table,” an initiative to promote families getting back to the family table. It includes monthly challenges, an e-newsletter and recipes.

Visit ‘The Family Table’ on the NDSU website for more information. Join the family meal challenges with prize drawings for participation. Videotape your favourite family table memory and post it on the Facebook site. Regardless of your household size, you may find some tips and recipes to enjoy.

Despite living on his own, my son still texts me in the afternoon and asks me, “What’s for dinner?” I think he would be over to join us in no time if I told him that beef kabobs are on the menu. Maybe we would top off this family meal by “looking for a hawk.” However, we’d let my younger daughter lead the way.

Here’s a delicious recipe and nutrition analysis courtesy of the North Dakota Beef Commission. Enjoy with a tossed green salad, whole wheat rolls and milk for a balanced meal.

Citrus-marinated beef and fruit kabobs

  • 1 lb. beef top sirloin steak, boneless and cut 1 inch thick
  • 1 medium orange
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1 tbsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. ground red pepper (optional)
  • 4 c. cubed mango, watermelon, peaches and/or plums
  • Chopped fresh cilantro leaves (optional garnish)

Grate peel and squeeze 2 tablespoons juice from orange; reserve juice in a separate bowl not in contact with raw meat. Combine grated orange peel, cilantro, paprika and ground red pepper, if desired, in small bowl. Cut beef steak into 1-1/4-inch pieces. Place beef and 2-1/2 tablespoons cilantro mixture in food-safe plastic bag; turn to coat. Place remaining cilantro mixture and fruit in separate food-safe plastic bags; turn to coat. Close bags securely. Marinate the bags of beef and fruit in refrigerator 15 minutes to two hours.

Soak eight 9-inch bamboo skewers in water 10 minutes; drain. Thread beef evenly onto four skewers, leaving a small space between pieces, or use metal skewers. Thread fruit onto remaining four separate skewers. Place kabobs on grill over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill beef kabobs, covered, five to seven minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, seven to nine minutes) for medium rare (145 F) to medium (160 F) doneness, turning occasionally. Grill fruit kabobs five to seven minutes or until softened and beginning to brown, turning once. Drizzle reserved orange juice over fruit kabobs. Garnish with cilantro, if desired.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 241 calories, 5 grams (g) fat, 28 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 3.4 g fibre and 59 milligrams sodium.

This nutritious and delicious recipe works well for a family meal. photo: North Dakota Beef Commission

About the author


Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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