Grace: Family Dining Week reminds us there's more to dinner than what's on our plates -
Published Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:08 am
Grace: Family Dining Week reminds us there's more to dinner than what's on our plates

• Read more about Family Dining Week and swap recipe ideas on the forums at

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Tonight we won't eat dinner together as a family.

I will be working and my husband will man the kitchen solo with our three kids.

This will mark the third time in five nights we will have eaten apart, so surely I'm flunking Omaha's Family Dining Week.

In case you haven't heard, the city is more than midway through a child health promotion that started Sunday and goes through Saturday and is supposed to remind us of something that used to be a given.

These days, sitting around the table together at dusk sometimes seems like a quaint relic, a Norman Rockwell window into the past.

It can be so hard to do that a local health group fighting childhood obesity is using this week to remind us of the many benefits — from physical to psychological — that family dinner has to offer.

Live Well Omaha Kids, a group started by Alegent Creighton Health, has dedicated this week to the cause, using its website and Facebook page to promote recipes and tips and ask Omahans to take a family dining pledge. As of Wednesday afternoon, some 921 families had signed up.

Even the mayor got involved, issuing a proclamation whereas-ing all the upsides to family dinner: reduced stress, better school performance, improved family communication and healthier eating habits.

“I, Jean Stothert, Mayor of the City of Omaha,” reads the statement, “do hereby proclaim October 20-26, 2013, as FAMILY DINING WEEK.”

The proclamation caught my attention. And truth be told, it gave me some indigestion.

How did we get to this point where a mayor and local health group have to remind us that it's good to see each other and eat right?

Looking at my own calendar, I see some of the reasons. Sunday worked out. But on Monday, a dinnertime piano lesson and sick kid blew up our table. On Tuesday, I skated in the door at 6:03 p.m. at precisely the moment when my husband dished up mashed potatoes. On Wednesday, I played catch-up from staying home earlier in the week with said sick kid. Tonight I've got a deadline story and an event I said I'd help with.

So let's start here: Being a mom who earns a paycheck makes me just like 80 percent of other Nebraska mothers with children under 18, according to recent census data. Nebraska's got the sixth-highest rate of working mothers in the U.S. You don't need a numbers cruncher to tell you what that can mean for dinnertime. (See: dogs, hot; pizza, frozen).

But that's just one change over time. Local family sociologist Dan Hawkins listed more: a 24-7 service industry that makes for round-the-clock shifts; longer hours for white-collar workers; a rise in single-parent households.

All are trends that would appear to conspire against a regular dinner hour.

But Hawkins, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, offered this ray of hope: “On most days, most kids, even teenagers, are still eating with their families,” he said, citing one study that says 70 percent of U.S. children eat with their families at least four or more days a week and 40 percent do it almost every night.

“Given the situation families find themselves in,” he said, “parents seem to be doing a pretty decent job of getting together for meals.”

Still, there's room for improvement, and public health expert Kelly Bouxsein explained why.

For starters, she said, children generally eat better when they sit with their parents at dinner. They eat more fruits and vegetables. They eat more whole grains. They eat less trans fats. And this makes the children less likely to be obese. One in three American children is overweight or obese, which leads to other health problems.

There's more: “Time with your family,” said Bouxsein, who has a master's degree in public health and is Live Well Omaha Kids' Healthier Communities administrator. “We see a lot of other benefits when kids eat regular meals with their families.”

Such as?

Children do better academically, they are more socially adjusted, they have more positive family interaction, Bouxsein says. Teenagers are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.

I've never doubted the benefits of a family dinner hour. But how do we make this happen more?

Local parents I'd asked on Facebook offered their tips: plan meals, do prep work on weekends, double your cooking batches, freeze extras, stagger meal times around the family schedule and keep meals simple.

Bouxsein added this: Involve the kids in prep and cleanup. And turn off the TV and cellphones.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Speaking of phones ...

There we were Tuesday night, eating the spare ribs I'd thrown in the crock pot that morning, my husband's mashed potatoes and some broccoli. But I also kept my smartphone at hand because I'd received a text saying the mayor would be calling me “any minute” to discuss this very topic.

At some point, my 7-year-old asked if I was listening to her, and I nodded, scarfing down the mashers and staring at my silent phone.

But Mayor Stothert didn't call until nearly an hour later, after the dinner dishes had been cleared away.

She explained: “Tonight when I got home, dinner was ready, there was a glass of wine, there was a candle burning.”

The mayor had gotten home at 6:30 p.m. and found husband Joe and this dinner: mushroom ravioli with a Parmesan pumpkin sauce and a salad.

I couldn't blame her for not letting that go cold.

The mayor's schedule is around-the-clock and she acknowledged what a grind that would be with young children. The two Stothert children are grown. Stothert said she and Joe, a trauma surgeon, try to carve out dinner time, even if it's at 10 o'clock at night.

“I think it's real important that we still maintain some balance,” she said.

This is why, when the Live Well group asked for a proclamation, Stothert agreed.

“I don't want to tell people how to live their lives,” Stothert said. “But I try to set a good example. People who are trying to manage a hectic life, they find it challenging and sometimes chaotic — but I hope they find it very productive and rewarding, too.”

At least one measure hints at that.

A 2010 Pew survey found that most American families are eating dinner together several nights a week. The survey also found this: Some 85 percent of respondents said their family members were as close or closer to one another as they were a generation ago.

That's good.

I can't break my commitments tonight. But what seemed like a no-brainer has me thinking.

There's more to dinner, obviously, than what's on our plates.

Always on my menu are four people I'm dying to see.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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