During American Heart Month, what better way to show your family some love than by beginning a healthier lifestyle. For most of my patients, that starts by making healthier food choices and making a commitment to bringing the family together for meals.
Cooking, eating healthy food, and family togetherness are subjects I commonly talk about with my patients—sometimes, that makes me feel as much like a social scientist as I am a physician. Yet these discussions are just as important as any that I have with patients about their health.
When it comes to the health problems that affect the liver (my area of expertise) and lead to metabolic syndrome, discussions about lifestyle are crucial. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of disorders that, on their own, can cause significant health problems: truncal obesity, diabetes (or insulin resistance), cardiovascular disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver (again, my area of expertise).
I’ve seen too many patients with fatty liver and metabolic syndrome who simply don’t understand nutrition and health, food shopping, vegetable and fruit selection, and how to prepare meals in a sustainable way. By that, I mean figuring out healthy menus that are more than just boiled chicken.
While my patients are primarily adults, I know that their unhealthy habits are also influencing their children. That’s why I’m such a proponent of the family meal, and family togetherness. In today’s society, families tend to be more fragmented and very little time is set aside to enjoy a family meal. When the family does sit down together, they’re lined up on the couch watching TV or tapping away on a device while eating takeout or some sort of heat-and-eat meal loaded with preservatives and lacking nutritious ingredients.
But anyone can discover the power of a nutritious family meal. For some families, cooking almost becomes a team sport with every member contributing to a winning outcome. From planning the menu and shopping for ingredients to cutting up and cooking foods to setting the table and cleaning up afterward, everyone takes responsibility for some part of the “family sport.” In fact, half the fun of a family cooking and eating together is the trial and error that comes from the new adventure itself.
In addition to trying healthier recipes, take advantage of the time together to find out what’s going on in the family—converse with each other, ask each other how their day went, talk to the kids about school, ask each other about plans and goals. Such conversations can transform meals into meaningful memories, instead of just checked-off boxes from the day’s to-do list.
An added bonus of eating at home is that it saves money. Only one generation ago, more than 75 percent of the family food budget was spent on ingredients that were cooked at home. Today, more than 50 percent of food money is spent eating out. Dinner for a family of four, including four appetizers, four entrées, and three desserts, will run about $85. Think about the multiple nutritious meals you could prepare with those dollars.
In these colder months, consider trying out a few easy recipes that everyone can contribute to. Maybe put together a simple soup with healthy ingredients like chicken or turkey and some basic fresh vegetables like celery, carrots, onions, and potatoes, then experiment with spices for added flavor. And with every chopped veggie, every sprinkling of spice, every forkful of nutritious food, you’ll be sharing heartwarming moments that will make for a happier, healthier family.