BY JESS HILTON

Special to the Daily Press

During the holidays, one of the ways we celebrate is by gathering around the dinner table with friends and loved ones for the ritual of sharing food. Sadly, for many of us this tradition only happens a handful of times each year.

In the not too distance past, it wasn’t uncommon for families to eat together nightly. It provided an opportunity to share the day’s events, to communicate and bond as a family.

When I was growing up, my family ate together every day. Sometimes, it felt like a chore, but we still did it. It was the one thing my mom insisted we do every night. Of course there were exceptions, like the nights my brother or I had a sleepover, or my parents visited a restaurant. Almost ever single day my mother made dinner from scratch and we ate the last bite together, even if we didn’t like it. She made one dish for everyone; no special requests, substitutions or omissions. She was the Sang Yoon of the day. (Those of you who have visited Father’s Office know what I’m talking about.)

These days, however, as families move apart and technology takes over their lives, the tradition of eating together has quietly slipped away. Kids are busy with after-school activities and parents are crazed with work, commutes, and carpools. Homemade meals have been replaced with fast food meals. Family dinners have been replaced with individual family members eating different meals, at different times, in different rooms. I’ve witnessed parents prepare a gorgeous dinner only to have Little Johnny demand mac ‘n’ cheese, from a box. He then eats his processed “meal” in front of the TV, while mom and dad sit at the table alone.

But all is not lost because the holiday ritual of eating together does not need to be a once-a-year event. It can become a weekly or even daily routine in your house.

My doctor recently told me he regretted not eating family meals when his kids were young. If he were able to turn back the clock, he would insist upon this tradition at least once a week. My pediatrician just told me about the importance of taking time to eat together as a family, even though my daughter is too young to even eat solid food! They are both aware of the positive impact eating together has on a family.

They both know it is a great place to foster communication. When parents and children come together around the table, conversation usually ensues … I hope. Mom and dad will learn what happened at school and what is going on in the lives of their children. Enjoying family meals also provides a great opportunity for parents to teach their kids the importance of healthy eating. (Of course, I had to squeeze in a bit about healthy eating.)

A recent study found that kids often imitate their parents’ eating habits. This includes not only what the parents eat, but how and when. Clearly then we should use meal times as an opportunity to teach kids how to build healthy a relationship with food. Some important lessons to take from the dinner table include:

n Eating and appreciating vegetables.

n Taking time to eat, as opposed to eating on the run, in a car etc.

n Creating balanced meals.

n Communicating and social interaction.

n Appreciating good food made with love.

Some of us no longer have family close by, but you can create your own version of family dinners. I recommend my clients, most of whom are single, eat with other people as often as possible. In Los Angeles, many of us are transplants without family nearby. So get together with friends, neighbors, and roommates to share a sense of community around the table at least once a week. Take turns making dinner or organize a weekly potluck. Try cooking new recipes together and enjoy them with company. Most importantly, make the time to enjoy a homemade meal with the ones you love in the new year.

Roast chicken is one of the best family meals. Serve with roasted vegetables and a green salad, it’s also extremely good for you.

Enjoy.

Tuscan roasted chicken

Serves: 8

3 tablespoons rosemary, chopped

1 large sprig rosemary

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

5 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 three pound chicken

1 lemon, quartered

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix chopped rosemary, olive oil, garlic, lemon peel, red pepper and salt in a gallon Ziploc bag with chicken.

Place chicken in roasting pan or stainless steel frying pan. Place quartered lemon and rosemary in cavity of chicken.

Roast chicken until meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of inner thigh registers 165 degrees, or juices run clear when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Jess Hilton is a health and nutrition coach in Santa Monica. She can be reached at www.jesshilton.com.

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