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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Parenting Priority

Even when the kids complain, you're doing right by them when you cook dinner and eat together.

Any kid can easily rattle off a list of their parents’ biggest sins. When I was younger, my gripes included my mom and dad stealing my Halloween candy and not letting me watch R-rated movies. Later on, I was ticked that my parents made me go to school on Senior Ditch Day.

But many of the most important parental successes go unnoticed by children. In fact, what children appreciate most — trips to theme parks or expensive toys, perhaps — hardly even rank on the Parental Bests list. I don’t think I really appreciated that until I was an adult with kids to care for myself.

One of the best things my parents did for our family was something that, as a child, I probably would have dismissed by saying, “That doesn’t count.” Several nights a week, my parents made a home-cooked meal. We ate together as a family every night.

As a kid, having dinner together was just a given. It was even kind of a drag. It meant I was under my parents’ watchful eyes and I was required to eat vegetables and drink an entire glass of milk before leaving the table.

If my parents let me take my plate to eat alone in front of the TV, it would have been easier to smuggle those veggies off to my pet rabbit. And if dinner was take-out fare (particularly if the menu items began with “Mc” and came with fries and a drink), I would have loved it.

But no. We had well-balanced homemade meals and we kids were expected to eat them. It didn’t occur to me to thank my parents for going to the trouble of cooking after they had already put in full days at work. I was too busy making gagging motions every time mom served asparagus.

My first hint that my mom had done anything special was my first “official” day as an adult, when I moved into an apartment and began a full-time job. After work, I decided to make dinner. Because that’s normal. That’s what you do.

I pulled out a cookbook and began preparing a chickpea curry. My roommates reacted with surprise, and one of them said, “Wow! You really cook!” I later found out that one of them lived on breakfast cereal, and the other one, who “cooked,” just heated up prepared meals from the freezer.

Nowadays, Americans spend less time than ever cooking their meals. But as bestselling author Michael Pollan points out in his new book Cooked, making dinner and eating together as a family is one of the most important things you can do for your kids.

Looking at it from the parents’ side of the equation, it’s not as easy as my mom made it look. Building up a repertoire of recipes, ensuring you’ve got all of the ingredients on hand, finding the time to cook and then sit down together somewhere between homework, swim practice, and piano lessons… it’s all work. And then you’re often thanked by choruses of “I don’t like it” and “do I have to eat it?”

But, even when the kids complain, you’re doing right by them when you cook dinner and eat together. They are learning conversation skills and manners. They not only eat healthier food (compared to store-bought or restaurant fare), but they are also developing their taste buds so that they will eat well throughout their lives.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. You can read an interview she conducted with Michael Pollan about his new book at