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.