Photograph by Jupiterimages, Getty Images
Photograph by Jupiterimages, Getty Images

Tasty ideas for bringing the fam together with food

With upcoming school breaks and visiting out-of-towners headed our way, now is the perfect time for families to broaden culinary horizons and bond over traditions, both new and old.

Hey, are you going to eat that? Sharing food makes us better humans.

Most parents know the benefits of eating together as a family: healthier kids, better school results, and improved self-esteem, among others. What’s most intriguing to me, though, is why we hold family food traditions in such high regard: because these rituals serve up so much more than just family favorites—they help shape kids’ identities and keep cultural and generational ties alive.

For example, my husband’s recipe for "Cowboy Stew" (basically, ground beef, an assortment of canned beans and veggies, plus a packet of taco seasoning … shh) is a wintertime cult favorite that helps us stay connected to his Texas roots. When I crowd sourced this question online, it was amazing how many noted the oddball family recipes as important family traditions—a Christmas Day chili in which every family member adds a different spice or ingredient, the "Stale Bread Soup" to remind everyone to be grateful. Perhaps it’s in these distinctions that each family derives its individual flavor.

Anyway you slice it, cooking serves many lessons.

While food can certainly bring families together, it can also make us smarter. If you don’t mind a little mess and can provide the right tools and supervision, getting kids involved in the kitchen means they’re learning first-hand about making healthy meals and being independent.

It’s just like Maryn McKenna explains in The Plate: Tinkering with recipes is essentially good science. Ask a question, change a variable, test the results, write it down, do it again.

For example, my 13-year-old has been trying to recreate some of the cakes she sees on the cooking shows with not-so-great results. I say, it’s OK—just put some berries on top! As long as she’s learning, and our family is sharing in these tasty experiments, I figure it’s a win-win for everyone.

What else can you teach in the kitchen during those long winter holidays? Here are 10 science experiments you can eat with your kids, or check out others in the book Edible Science.

Spice things up: Try new dishes and learn about the world.

If your family is like mine, we definitely enjoy our share of Mexican, Italian, and Thai food. But there’s so much more out there. The holiday break offers a great excuse to hit another part of town and learn about another culture while enjoying a memorable meal with extended family. For inspiration, check out this photo gallery to see how holidays around the world are celebrated.

Who knows what new traditions your family can come up with based on cultural cuisine? Take a family passeggiata (translation: a nice walk people in Italy like to partake in) after a meal of lasagna. Or practice slurping your noodle soup—after all, that’s considered polite in Japan.

Even food your children might already be familiar with can teach surprising things. Those candy canes on the gingerbread house? They’ve been around for 300 years. The spinach in the Thanksgiving salad? Ancient artists extracted green pigment from the leaves to use as paint. And some foods you thought were completely American actually came from somewhere else—an important lesson for kids about global culture.

Hungry yet? Grab the kids and see if they can get the table ready—it’s time for some holiday bonding!