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WAKE UP! IT'S TIME FOR THE NEW FAMILY MEAL

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by Mary Jo Kurtz

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Most of us have a vision of The Family Meal. The image includes our calm and happy children drinking milk and talking about their day at school, while we proud parents look on and share a laugh or two over something healthy and most likely home-cooked...

Hello? Does this really happen in America?

Well, for a lucky few, The Family Meal is a reality. But for the rest of us, it is a concept that we chase each day after band camp, soccer practice, piano lessons, ballet, late night meetings at work, traffic jams, a trip to the grocery store, a review of the night's math homework, and a few loads of laundry. In fact, The Family Meal — once a late afternoon event on Leave It to Beaver — is quickly becoming a bedtime ritual for many of us. I have to admit to throwing my arms up in the air on a few occasions and wondering why I am letting this notion of a family dinner consume so much of my time. There have been nights where I have made my hungry 12-year-old wait for Dad to get home from a late night at work only to find the boy too tired to eat. What's more, late night eating is not kind to my hips, I am clearing the table after putting the kids to bed, and I am just too exhausted to enjoy any type of conversation. So I got to thinking. If my family is too busy for The Meal in the evening, why can't we move The Meal to the morning? After all, breakfast has been touted as the most important meal of the day, children who eat breakfast do better in school, and we can gather as a family over a bowl of cereal — a much easier meal to make!

The Nutritional Boost My thoughts are certainly not unique. Health experts have been screaming about the importance of breakfast for generations. Study after study shows how a nutritional morning meal can be one of the best gifts we give our families, yet many of us disregard the facts. This is especially true as our children get older. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) reports that as many as one out of six fifth-graders skips breakfast. And that statistic gets worse as children mature. Older children are much more likely to skip breakfast than their younger counterparts. "How many times do you drive by a bus stop and see a kid with a Popsicle in one hand and a Pop Tart in the other?" notes registered dietitian Carol Meerschaert. "Adults are just as guilty. We stop for donuts and large coffees! Encouraging your family to eat breakfast makes sense for practical reasons," she added. The ADA agrees. By eating a nutritionally sound morning meal, we can stop mid-morning cravings for poor-choice foods. This is one of the primary reasons that dieters are urged to start each day with a healthy breakfast. A morning consumption of fiber and fruit can keep the body on a healthy track for the entire day. This is great news for those of us looking to shed some unwanted pounds, and that benefit spills over to our children. The ADA notes that kids who eat breakfast are also less likely to be overweight. Setting a good example is one of the easiest ways to teach children about nutrition. The ADA recommends offering a variety of foods — from cereal or toast to pizza and tacos. Such a start helps to regulate the appetite through the day and can prevent adults and children from eating too much late at night. And these benefits will last long after the bread has popped from the toaster. Children who get adequate nutrients from foods are less likely to develop chronic diseases in adulthood. By skipping breakfast, many children miss a primary opportunity to get adequate dietary fiber and important vitamins and minerals.

Better Breakfast, Better Grades But wait, there's more. Our children will reap breakfast benefits in the classroom. "Breakfast gives energy needed to be successful. A good breakfast will help a child maintain energy," notes 30-year education veteran and school superintendent Dr. Stephen Dlott. "The biggest problem that educators see is with older kids. They wait till the last second to wake up, and they don't have breakfast." Food jump-starts the brain. The ADA stresses that children who eat breakfast are more alert and perform better on school tests than children who skip a morning meal. This benefit continues into the afternoon as different foods release energy at different times. A breakfast with foods from several food groups can help to sustain a child's energy level throughout the school day.

The Family Factor Finally, there is the family factor: How we strive to get our families together for dinner! For some, gathering everyone together — if only for a 15-minute bagel break — might be much easier in the morning. "Let's get with the program! It's practical! I hate to see young children wait until 8pm to eat. They should be in bed. The Family Meal is not practical late at night," urges dietitian Meerschaert. If your family is one of many that finds the end of the day a little too exhausting for meaningful conversation, a switch to the morning may be the answer. The benefits of eating together, regardless of the meal you choose to share, are immense. "I think the benefits of a family meal are immeasurable. Everyone is in the same place at the same time doing something that we all enjoy — eating. It's a chance to talk about meaningful things, important things. It's a chance to understand what a child is doing," offers Dr. Dlott. "There's a sense of community that breakfast or any family meal gives. It allows your children to talk about things they are proud of, and it solidifies families.” And for families juggling a variety of hectic evening schedules, a family breakfast can alleviate much of the stress that builds from finding time for a group dinner. This is not to say that we all should skip dinner, of course. A late afternoon or early evening meal is an important part of a nutritionally balanced day. But taking the emphasis off a large late meal can pave the way for a lighter and healthier supper. OK, I am seeing The New Family Meal. In this illusion, we all sit around the table at sunrise, sharing our day's plans, taking in a sound serving of blueberries and yogurt, and sharing a "Good Morning" hug...

Hello? Is this an illusion or a delusion?

Well, it might be a little unrealistic to expect everyone to be happy about waking up 15 minutes earlier in the morning, but I think the potential for some healthy change is in the making!

————————————————— TIPS FOR MORNING MEALTIME BLISS If you are thinking of boosting your family's breakfast by making it more of a group activity, here are a few tips to consider:

—Choose healthy foods. "The biggest mistake parents make is to have a kid eat a food just because the kid likes it. Not all foods are as healthy as they sound. Read labels, especially on cereal bars and juices. See that you are getting real fruit and 100 percent juice. Get your money's worth!" urges Meerschaert.

—When possible, make meal plans the night before and prepare foods ahead of time. This will help to move the morning along smoothly for everyone.

—Share the morning responsibilities. Younger children will enjoy helping to mix pancake batter or set the table. Older children can help to get drinks or clean up. By sharing the chores, you can lighten the load and keep the morning rush to a minimum.

—Engage your family in meaningful conversation. This is the time to ask your children about the day ahead and to share your plans. "Meals are a great opportunity to engage children in conversation. Nothing beats a family meal. It's a time of respite. It's a time to discuss family topics," says Dr. Dlott.

—Be creative. "The great thing about making breakfast is that it is a popular meal with kids. Kids like most breakfast foods," says Meerschaert. But there is no need to limit yourself to toast and cereal. Pizza, yogurt, eggs, sandwiches... the list is endless. Snazz up a favorite like pancakes with raspberries or peanut butter. Top your bagel with tuna fish and melted cheese. A little creativity gives new life to old standbys.

—Be realistic about the time everyone can commit. Expecting a one-hour three-course meal is not going to go over well with kids who are adjusting to a new routine. Start with a 10- or 15-minute commitment to a simple breakfast such as cereal or toast. Soon, the morning meal will be a routine that everyone will enjoy.

————————————— Inspiring Breakfast Ideas If you are in a breakfast food rut, pouring the same cereal day after day, consider some of these suggestions. It takes just a minute and a look around your kitchen to find new ways to serve old favorites!

* Calcium-fortified waffles with sliced bananas and a scoop of frozen yogurt

* Hot oatmeal topped with raspberries and blueberries

* A toasted honey wheat English muffin served with scrambled eggs and melted cheese

* A veggie cheese omelet stuffed with broccoli or other favorite vegetables

* Vegetable soup and an oat bran muffin

* Yogurt Crunch: flavored low-fat yogurt topped with granola and sliced almonds

* Sliced apples topped with peanut butter and all-fruit spread

* Pizza cooked with low-fat cheese and pineapple chunk topping

* Scrambled eggs stuffed in a burrito and topped with salsa

* Apple sauce and pumpkin bread


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