When Erin O’Connell ’14 sits down at her family’s holiday table each year, she expects a side of laughter with her cheesy potatoes. They will tease each other about who got to fill their plate first (the O’Connells line up by height, shortest in front) and continue poking fun at the couple who mailed frozen meat to an aunt in advance of the party — but forgot to tell her, so it thawed on her front stoop.
“Sitting down together over a meal is crucial to our relationships with each other, and to food,” says O’Connell, a senior dietetics major and president of the Student Dietetics Association. She notes that coming together at the table is central to the Marianist tradition.
As psychology professor Jack Bauer points out, “People need rituals. We are hard-wired to be part of groups, especially family, and in a time when our society is so complex — people are living all over and are busy — we need to have a set place where it all comes together, even just once a year.”
Meals also offer time for reflection. “You don’t need to have long, in-depth conversations about the meaning of life. Just by talking about the things that you’re doing, that you’re interested in, you’re talking about what’s important to you. You’re checking in with each other, and maybe finding ways to help each other,” says Bauer, who serves as Roesch Chair in the Social Sciences.
1. The family that cooks together, stays together. Or, at least stays happier. “Cooking as a group takes the pressure off one person to prepare the whole meal and be stuck in the kitchen,” O’Connell says. Also, plan ahead. If hosting a potluck, coordinate dishes so there’s adequate oven space, or ask guests to bring cold dishes, like a salad or fruit tray.
2. Think big (but serve small). In Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating, he notes that when food is placed in a smaller serving bowl with smaller serving utensils, people will take and eat less. “It’s a mental thing. You think you are eating the same as you would from a bigger bowl, but you actually serve yourself less and are still satisfied,” O’Connell explains. Aim to fill your table with a quarter protein, half vegetables and fruit, and a quarter grains.
3. Eat first, play later. No, you don’t have to give up grandma’s triple-layer pecan pie. But eating lean protein and vegetables before arriving can help you make clearer choices. “You’ll eat less because you’ll be full faster,” O’Connell says. Then, get moving: run a 5K together, throw a Frisbee around the yard or turn on some tunes and dance. “My family always plays flag football the day after Thanksgiving,” O’Connell says. “We enjoy working together as a team, but it also helps people feel relaxed and happy since physical activity produces endorphins.” She recommends scheduling your fun between dinner and dessert; it allows your cells to use those nutrients before you ingest more sugar.
4. Keep the fun (not the food poisoning) going. One memory no one wants: an illness epidemic. “Don’t let the food sit out for more than 90 minutes,” O’Connell says. “Not only does this follow recommended food safety guidelines, it also keeps you from eating more.” Another idea: Leftovers can make great one-dish entrees the next day, with little effort. O’Connell suggests turkey noodle soup, gnocchi using mashed potatoes, or a casserole. “Combine the rest of your vegetables, turkey and stuffing, add a cream soup, and put it in the oven.”
5. What guests don’t know won’t hurt them. One final tip: “If you alter recipes to reduce the fat and sugar, keep it a secret,” O’Connell advises. “Not everyone is ready to make those changes.”