How Family Dinners Promote Food Literate Kids

If you need a food mantra to keep you going, try this: make it yourself, eat it together.

As parents, of course we want to raise healthy kids.

Research often points to the family dinner as a good place to focus our efforts, but why? As a school chef and a mom of three, I think about kids and food a lot.

I  believe we really want to raise kids who know how to eat well, and who can make healthy choices for themselves. We want to raise kids who are food literate. And family meals might just be the best way to get there.

What is food literacy, and why is it important? Food Literacy is defined by the non-profit Food Literacy Project as “understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, the environment, and our economy.”

In my version, it also encompasses the family activities of cooking and sharing food. So a food literate kid would ideally understand basic food systems (how food gets from the farm to our plate), and get why whole foods make sense for their bodies (they’re natural and deliver lots of nutrients).

They would have an idea of the work that goes into cooking those foods, and be able to help out with the process. And they would enjoy the sense of connection that comes from shared meals. All wins. So what’s the trouble?

We’re losing food literacy.

In his book “Cooked,” Michael Pollan writes that since the 1960s, when women began to enter the workforce in real numbers, Americans have spent increasingly less time cooking at home and instead come to rely on more heavily processed foods.

TV Dinner Wrapped in Cellophane

During that same time, health issues related to our food choices have steadily risen. We all know that childhood obesity is a problem, and what used to be known as adult-onset diabetes now appears regularly in our kids. Our increased consumption of super processed food, high in sugar, salt, and fat, is a known contributor to the decline in our health.

Shifting away from the processed stuff and cooking more whole foods at home can be a simple but powerful way to support the physical health of our families. But that’s not the only reason to get your family around the table.

By cooking and eating together less often, we’re losing more than good nutrition: Namely the understanding of what whole, unprocessed food looks like, where it comes from, and how it gets from its starting point to our plate. We’re losing food literacy!

Making a habit of home-cooked meals can give families a unique opportunity to get kids thinking and talking about healthy food in a bigger context:

  • You can plan the week’s (or the night’s) dinner menu and talk about what fruits and veggies are in season where you live.
  • Get your kids thinking about where the food  you’re buying was grown or prepared and how it got to the store where you bought it.
  • Ask your kids what they like to eat, and why.
  • You can talk about budgeting, how you decide what foods to buy, and why some foods cost more than others.
  • Tell your kids how you plan to cook it all, and even enlist them to help.

Then, and I believe this is the most important part, you can eat it. Together.

After all, food does more than nourish our bodies. It  connects us as families, and as humans.  Eating together is a natural time for families to hit pause on a busy day, take a breath, and regroup.

Indeed, the family dinner boasts an impressive list of benefits:

  • Research has shown that people of all ages make healthier food choices when eating at home with others.
  • Kids who eat regular dinners with family have better grades than kids who don’t, and are less likely to be overweight.
  • In a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse teens reported a stronger sense of connection to other family members after sharing meals together.
  • Best of all, when you cook, your kids will learn by example that devoting time to cooking and eating together  is worthwhile.

And it’s true, cooking takes time. As working parents we are so busy that cooking has become just one more chore competing for our time.Make It Yourself, Eat It Together

Pre-made stuff is easy, fast, and relentlessly marketed to busy, tired parents. What’s the harm in heating up some chicken nuggets and letting the kids eat alone while you finish the laundry, or the work you brought home, or any of the million other tasks you need to complete before bed time? If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. And sometimes in modern households this scenario is unavoidable.

I cook professionally, and even I don’t want to live in a world without Annie’s Mac and Cheese or the occasional frozen pizza bagel. But it’s worth considering that by relying on processed foods for a large part of our diets we’re not just eating less healthy food, we’re losing those cooking skills, recipes, and traditions that used to be taught through families.

By cooking less, we’re raising kids who don’t cook, who know less about the food they eat, and who will rely more on processed foods as they transition into feeding themselves. What we feed our kids is laying the foundation for their lifelong health and development. When you consider the whole picture, cooking from scratch seems like a much better use of our parenting time than the makers of frozen pizza bagels would have us believe.

Eating together is the most important part.

If family dinners are the norm at your house, right on. If you want to give it a go but you’re a non-cook, or if making regular family meals happen feels unrealistic, don’t despair. My advice is to keep it simple and take it slow.

There are many excellent recipe websites with tons of easy dinner ideas to get you going. And you don’t have to make Pinterest-worthy mega meals, just start where you are. Scrambled eggs and whole grain toast with butter are whole foods.

Cut up some oranges or carrot sticks on the side and you just made a dinner that’s a million times more nourishing than any processed chicken nugget, especially if you share it.

Eating together is the most important part.


10 Tricks for Making Family Potlucks Fun and Delicious

If the word “potluck” conjures up images of weird 70s-style casseroles or church basement get togethers, you’re probably not alone. But times have changed. Potlucks are having a moment with modern parents.

If the word “potluck” conjures up images of weird 70s-style casseroles or church basement get togethers, you’re probably not alone. But times have changed. Potlucks are having a moment with modern parents.

And why not? They’re kind of brilliant. Yes, we want to hang out with other families, but for many of us the thought of planning and hosting a huge party brings on hives. Potlucks let everyone share the feeding of folks, so you can get a crowd together without stressing the snacks. They’re also super kid friendly, so grownups actually get to have real conversations with other adults!

Where I live, parents have been hip to this approach for awhile, and I’ve learned a few tricks to make potlucks fun and delicious.

If you’re hosting:

Have a Theme!

The best potluck I ever attended had a a theme and a title – “Meatball Madness”. Everyone brought their best meatballs and some good bread, and the host supplied a huge green salad and cooked pasta. It was a blast, and everyone hung out for hours and left happily stuffed. There are so many ideas that would work here it’s hard to choose. You could slow cook a pork shoulder, supply the corn tortillas and have everyone bring their favorite fillings for a taco party. I’ve always wanted to host a pizza potluck. Or how about Tex-Mex! All Appetizers! Desserts! Only Betty Crocker recipes! If you go this route, make sure you define it well for everyone and decide what you’ll supply to round things out.

Go Wild Style!

If you go the free-for all route, try having folks sign up for a category – drinks, appetizers, main dish, dessert, etc. There are some great online tools to help with this. I like because it does most of the work for you. Type in your expected number of guests and it will tell you exactly what you need, down to the number of napkins. You email the invite and folks rsvp and sign up for a dish all in one place. Easy peasy.

Make a beverage plan

If you’re up for it, it’s fun to make a few pitchers of a fun drink for the grown ups. Margaritas in warm weather, or spiked cider in the winter months always work. Just make sure you have some back up beer or wine. And if you want folks to BYOB, make it clear on the invite.

Think of the children!

A cooler stocked with easily accessible juice boxes will reduce spills, save cups and keep everyone happy (and hydrated).

Most of all, chill!

Relax and have fun. Really. And don’t forget to eat!

If you’re a guest


Sign up and bring what you say you’ll bring.

Nothing stresses out a potluck host more than when everyone shows up with a raw veggie platter instead of the casserole they said they were making. Also, make a bit more than you think you might need. In a potluck situation, it’s better to have a little too much than not enough.

Ask ahead of time if you’ll need oven space.

Best potluck practice? Bring something warm and ready to serve. But if you’ll need a brief reheat, make sure you let your host know in advance. And be flexible – the oven may be full right up to party time.

Bring everything you’ll need to serve your dish.

Reduce your host’s stress by coming prepared. Potholders or a kitchen towl to put your dish on, a ladle or spatula for serving, Maybe even a trivet to protect the table. The less you have to borrow from your host’s kitchen the better.

Take your stuff with you when you leave.

If you have leftovers, take them. Your host doesn’t want to sort out 15 casserole dishes, then wash and return them. Wrap it back up and bring it on home. Same goes if your dish is empty, of course.

Offer to host the next one.

Had a great time? Plan a potluck at your place. Better start brainstorming themes!

Ever hosted or attended an awesome – or awful – potluck? Tell us all about it!

Got Leftover Easter Ham? Try This Recipe.

Skip the ham sandwiches and make this mouthwatering, warm and crusty take on the classic diner Monte Cristo sandwich.

You could make scalloped potatoes or mac and cheese with leftover ham. Or even plain old ham sandwiches. Or you could try this mouthwatering, warm and crusty, crunchy on the outside, melty on the inside version of the classic Monte Cristo sandwich.

Monte Cristo Calzone

You need:

  • 1 lb whole wheat pizza dough (make it yourself or buy it packaged, usually in the freezer or deli section of the grocery store)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for brushing pan
  • 2 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1/2 lb (7 or 8 thin slices) cooked ham
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Preheat your oven to 400

Generously brush a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil, or line with parchment paper.

Roll out your dough on a lightly floured surface until you have a rectangle roughly the size of your baking sheet. Drizzle the Tbsp of olive oil over the dough, then spread the dijon mustard evenly over the top. Arrange the ham slices over the mustard, then cover  with the cheese.  Sprinkle liberally with black pepper.

With a long side of the dough rectangle facing you, fold the dough over gently once to about the halfway point of the rectangle, then fold the other long side up and over that edge, like you would fold a letter to put in an envelope. Press down on the seam in the dough to seal it. Use a sharp knife to cut the long roll in half crosswise, so you have two approximately 7 inch-long rolls. Transfer them to the baking sheet, side by side. Brush the tops with the beaten egg, and sprinkle with the salt.

Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, seam side up, until the top begins to brown. Using a spatula, carefully flip the rolls over so the seam side is down, and bake for another 10  minutes, or until both sides are nicely brown and crispy in spots.

Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes before slicing. Serve with a green salad.