Keep your family happy and healthy at mealtime and score a dinner home run with this fast, fun, and hands-on recipe for Tofu Stir-Fry with Broccoli and Carrots. And while you’re at it, read on for easy ways to bring joy (and less stress!) to your family’s table.
Gathering around the table is an important part of connecting as a family, and in the last decade, studies have proven what some parents always have suspected: Family dinners are important. They nurture body and soul by fostering good eating habits, a healthy body weight in children and adolescents, a reduced risk of eating disorders, and better grades in school. Teens who regularly eat with their families have lower rates of drug and alcohol use.
September is National Family Meals Month. I’m joining the celebration today with tips for adding more happiness to your daily ritual of breaking bread together, and I’ve got an easy vegetarian recipe starring tofu and lots of veggies that your entire family will love!
How to Bring “Happy” to Family Meals
It’s not just the act of eating together that makes family mealtimes so beneficial. A study from the University of Illinois finds that setting a happy emotional tone at the table increases the positive effects of families eating together, leading to more healthful food choices among preschoolers. It makes sense: Parents who coax children to eat their vegetables or try something new when tempers are flaring can backfire. Food begins to feel like a punishment rather than a celebration.
Jaclyn A. Saltzman, MPH, PhD, formerly with the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes the study: “We recruited 74 families from the STRONG Kids Project, which is a larger panel study focused on understanding how certain biological, behavioral, and environmental factors may influence preschoolers’ health. Families in the smaller project completed questionnaires when children were about 3 years old, participated in a home visit when children were about 31/2 years old, and completed questionnaires again when children were about 4 years old. At the home visit, we videotaped a family mealtime. We expected that a more positive mealtime emotional climate (where moms and kids expressed mostly positive emotion) might lead to more favorable outcomes, because a positive mealtime is likely a less stressful experience and more conducive to eating or trying a variety of fruits and vegetables.”
The results of the study are clear: Children in families with more positive mealtimes ate one more serving of healthful food (eg, fruits, vegetables, soy-based protein products), as compared with children in families with less positive family mealtimes. “Our hypothesis is that this is because positive mealtimes are less stressful for parents, and so they’re able to have warm, clear, dynamic communication with their children,” Saltzman says.
Parents and caregivers can’t just wave a magic wand and tell their children to make a positive transition into mealtimes. Parents are often tired at the end of the workday and can be desperate to get their kids to eat more healthfully. “I wouldn’t tell parents to just be more positive—to just slap a smile on your face—because in the face of a picky-eating preschooler or any other mealtime challenge, that’s just not going to work,” Saltzman says. “But there are several things parents can do.”
Realistic Rules Make Mealtime Less Stressful
Katie Morford, MS, RDN, a cookbook author and founder of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook, agrees, and recommends starting with a list of table manner expectations. “My family wrote ours together, and that process drilled into them what the expectations were,” she says. “Our rules were things like, don’t lick your knife; … say ‘No, thank you,’ not ‘Yuck’; and thank the cook.” She also advises introducing new foods slowly. “Sure, introduce new foods, but at the same time be mindful of putting some food on the table they’ll embrace, so they’ll feel positive about it. Over time, they’ll get on board.” Finally, Morford says she’s a big fan of involving kids in the cooking process, from menu planning to cleanup, and assigning children specific roles at mealtimes. “When they’re young, it can be things like running the salad spinner or pulling stems off of strawberries, and as they get older they can get even more involved. Literally everything can become part of the process of being involved in the family table.”
Saltzman agrees that collaboration in the kitchen is key. “Another study from our research group found that family food involvement predicts healthier dietary intake in preschool-aged children as well, so it would be worthwhile to combine food involvement with a more positive approach to mealtimes in efforts to promote healthful eating.” If all the preparation for positivity fails, Saltzman says, parents can practice emotional regulation techniques for themselves to keep things peaceful at the table. “Breathing exercises are really great; counting to 10 in your head or taking a step back from the mealtime are [both] really important things for parents to do.”
The Secret to Easy and Pleasing Family Dinners
Encouraging families to come to the dinner table more often and make it through dinner happily is always in the back of my mind when I develop recipes. I create recipes that are fast and easy to help tackle the challenges of busy schedules and lack of time. I keep my recipes fun and familiar so kids (even the pickiest eaters) are more willing to take that very first bite. And I make them interactive so kids of all ages can roll up their sleeves, don their aprons, and assist with the cooking. The icing on the cake: They’re healthful and delicious.
How to make my Tofu Stir-Fry with Broccoli and Carrots
To prepare the tofu, remove from the package and drain. Wrap in a lint-free kitchen towel or paper towels and place on a cutting board. Place a rimmed baking sheet and a heavy object, such as a cast iron skillet, a few large cans of tomatoes, or a kettle filled with water, on top. Let the tofu drain for 15 minutes. Rewrap with a dry kitchen towel or paper towels and drain an additional 15 minutes.
Once the tofu is dry, slice into 3/4-inch, bite-size cubes. Place the cubes in a bowl and toss with the cornstarch and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large wok or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu and stir fry, stirring frequently, until golden on all sides, about 6 minutes. Remove the tofu to a bowl and set aside.
Add the remaining oil to the wok and raise the heat to medium-high. Add the broccoli, carrots, and 2 tablespoons water and stir-fry sauce until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the tofu back to the wok with the stir-fry sauce and water. Toss until heated through. Adjust seasoning with additional stir-fry sauce. Serve with brown rice, green onion, and sesame seeds, if desired.
- Serves: 4
- Serving size: (not including brown rice)
- Calories: 233
- Fat: 13g
- Saturated fat: 2g
- Carbohydrates: 14g
- Sodium: 260mg
- Protein: 15g
- One 14-oz package extra-firm tofu
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 4 cups small broccoli florets
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch thick coins (about ¾ cup)
- 2 tablespoon water
- ¼ cup stir-fry sauce, plus more to taste
- 2 cups cooked brown rice, optional
- 1 green onion, cut into thin slices, optional
- Sesame seeds, optional
- To prepare the tofu, remove from the package and drain. Wrap in a lint-free kitchen towel or paper towels and place on a cutting board. Place a rimmed baking sheet and a heavy object, such as a cast iron skillet, a few large cans of tomatoes, or a kettle filled with water, on top. Let the tofu drain for 15 minutes. Rewrap with a dry kitchen towel or paper towels and drain an additional 15 minutes.
- Once the tofu is dry, slice into ¾-inch, bite-size cubes. Place the cubes in a bowl and toss with the cornstarch and a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large wok or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu and stir fry, stirring frequently, until golden on all sides, about 6 minutes. Remove the tofu to a bowl and set aside.
- Add the remaining oil to the wok and raise the heat to medium-high. Add the broccoli, carrots, and 2 tablespoons water and stir-fry sauce until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tofu back to the wok with the stir-fry sauce and water. Toss until heated through. Adjust seasoning with additional stir-fry sauce. Serve with brown rice, green onion, and sesame seeds, if desired.
What are your best tips for gathering your family around the dinnertable?