You get home from hectic day at work followed by a hellish commute and begin that harried rush to get a nutritious meal on the table. Oh, did we mention you're ravenous? There's no doubt that dinnertime can be stressful, especially if you're trying to feed a whole family.
You probably already know from personal experience that being under stress can lead to cravings for unhealthy food and poor food choices. And it turns out that being stressed out could even blunt the positive effects of eating a healthy meal: The authors of a recent study from Ohio State University looked specifically at dietary fats and found evidence that suggest that "the benefits of good fats vanish when stress enters the picture."
While we can't speak to the merits of the study (which was admittedly quite small), many experts agree that to get the most out of mealtime, it pays to reduce stress. "There’s no question that how we eat can be as important as what we eat," says Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and the author of "Blue Zones: Lessons from the World’s Longest-Lived People." "When we’re stressed our bodies excrete cortisol, a hormone that interferes with healthy digestion."
"To properly digest your food and reap the health benefits, relaxation is key," adds Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, co-author of "The Happiness Diet" and author of "Eat Complete.”
While we can't help you with all the stressors in life (debate watching, anyone?), we can help you cut down on dinnertime stress. Read on for six expert tips for achieving a healthier, happier mealtime.
"Mealtimes can be hectic, especially when you have young kids with varying tastes and dietary demands," says TODAY contributor Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of "Eating in Color" and "Feed the Belly." "It can be a challenge, but it's really important to take the time to actually sit downand enjoy your food." Buettner concurs: "Never eat with one hand on the steering wheel — sit down and eat slowly." He adds that families who sit down together are more likely to eat healthy food, so get your family around the table as often as you can (even if your family is a group of friends).
Take a quiet moment
Ramsey says his family begins each meal with a calming moment of silence, while Buettner recommends taking time before eating to express gratitude. "Rituals like saying grace [provide] punctuation between our hurry-worry and mealtime," Buettner explains, adding that taking this time will make you more likely to eat slowly and make better food choices.
Plan and prep ahead
“Too busy seems to be the new baseline for almost everyone," says Ramsey, who recommends "goal setting and simple planning" as a remedy. He's also a fan of tools like rice cookers and slow cookers that let you do meal prep ahead of time. "These are workhorses in our kitchen and make amazing home-cooked meals, plus you scoop and serve so there's no stress of complicated cooking," he says.
If the classic parental joke about being a short-order cook describes you, try to shift to chef's choice mode as much as possible. "Keep the options to a minimum or else you’ll be at the stove for the entire meal," advises Largeman-Roth.
Spread the work around
While you're giving up the short order cook job, you might consider getting yourself some additional kitchen help. "We put our kids to work chopping, setting the table, lighting a candle so they are engaged and not underfoot," says Ramsey. Assign roles for cleanup too, suggests Dr. Eric Rimm, a Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "At my house, we also have the rule that whoever cooks gets to watch while the others do clean up. I found this got my son in high school much more interested in cooking!"
Turning off the TV and other electronic devices was the one tip recommended by every expert we consulted about how to have a happier, healthier mealtime. "The easiest way to lower stress levels during mealtime is to cut out unnecessary distractions," says Largeman-Roth. "This means no TV, no cell phones at the table (grown ups too!), no ear buds, and no other electronic distractions." Or, as Buettner puts it: "When you eat, just eat."