July 19, 2007

Life and Health

Life and Health Basics: Stress-Free, Healthy Meals

Alice Abler

Multiple studies have shown there are physical as well as mental benefits when meals are shared in a peaceful setting. Teens are known to have fewer troubles in life and better relationships with parents when they habitually eat five or more meals per week with the family. Regular peaceful, healthy meals encourage better digestion and reduce the likelihood of abdominal obesity, which in turn helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

The long-term value of this habit is undeniable. Nevertheless, to those for whom it is a new concept, it may seem easier said than done. Determining to make this healthy lifestyle change is probably the hardest part—beyond that, it helps to have a plan.

First, make sure your shopping includes healthful purchases and does not include high-fat, high-sodium and high-sugar processed foods. Instead, stock the refrigerator, the freezer and the pantry with quick-cooking meats and a variety of vegetables. Think thin: pounded chicken breasts or fish fillets with sliced vegetables cook quickly in a skillet, under a broiler or on a grill while a pot of quinoa, millet, brown rice, or whole grain pasta or couscous is cooking. Or, if you’re fond of your slow-cooker, put raw items in at the beginning of the day and return hours later to a steaming, fully cooked meal.

If your taste is for cold foods, get creative with salads. Start with a bed of greens; add bite-sized morsels of fruit or vegetables; layer chunks of cheese, hard-cooked eggs, slices of leftover roast beef or chicken, a handful of nuts, or a can of tuna or beans for protein; and top with a splash of citrus juice, or vinegar and olive oil, and a sprinkling of herbs. In little time you will have a quick, delicious and satisfying repast.

Second, relax. If you are not alone, solicit help with the preparation. A stressed cook can easily make everyone else feel stressed. Getting others—yes, even the children—involved in the preparation can help turn a potential chore into a social event. Enjoy the process. Savor the colors and scents of different foods as you experiment. Tasks that can be shared include making a salad, chopping vegetables, grilling meat or vegetables, cleaning and putting things away as you finish with them, and setting the table.

Third, set an attractive table. Plates and flatware carefully and thoughtfully arranged send a message of order and tranquility. Add colorful napkins and a centerpiece—perhaps some flowers in a vase or a basket of attractive fruit or vegetables. Avoiding visual clutter by not putting condiments and beverages on the table in their commercial packaging may take a few more seconds but adds to the serenity. Candles are another sure way to add to the calm atmosphere. For some, the lighting of a candle before mealtime becomes an important ritual.

Fourth, turn off electronic distractions. Blaring televisions and radios only add to stress levels. Cell phones, text messaging and audible e-mail alerts cause unpleasant interruptions and will not add to a relaxing atmosphere. Soft background music, however, may be a welcome addition. Some families find it helpful to compile CDs of family members’ favorite relaxing tunes for such occasions.

Fifth, remember that good manners (thinking of others and their needs) and proper etiquette (rules governing socially acceptable behavior) are essential to a tranquil ambience. Teaching and reinforcing good habits while dining is natural for parents, and necessary, but be careful to do so with a positive approach. Mealtime is not the time to be harshly correcting children, chiding spouses or complaining about coworkers. Avoid contention while dining. Instead, concentrate on complimenting others at the table and discussing positive aspects of the day’s events.

When the meal is over, enlist help with cleanup. Sometimes those who benefited from the meal need to be reminded that it didn’t just appear spontaneously and that thorough cleanup is part of the whole process. This task is not necessarily as daunting if others pitch in, and the benefits may be surprising. Many budding conversationalists, immobilized by hands in sudsy water, have found themselves having meaningful interactions in front of the kitchen sink.

Study after study has proven there are multiple lasting benefits for adults and children alike when meals are shared. Breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch, or dinner—they all matter! Whether you live alone or with a large family, turning mealtimes into an oasis of calm in the midst of a chaotic day will make a difference in your health, your relationships and your life.