Cooking Up Unity: NEP, Child Advocacy Program Work Together to Strengthen Families

For some families, the age-old battle over vegetables is never fought because fewer families are eating together. According to The 

Family Dinner Project, a non-profit based out of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatry Academy that was created to promote the benefits of families eating together, only 30% of U.S. families dine together regularly.

That is problematic because research, according to The Family Dinner Project, reveals family dinners have the power to improve:

  • physical and mental health of children
  • cardiovascular health in teens
  • academic performance.

Family meals also tend to:

  • have less fat, sugar, and salt
  • more fruit, vegetables, and protein.

Benefits also include lower rates of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and early teenage pregnancy and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.

In Floyd County, Family & Children’s Place and NEP are introducing local families to the joys of breaking bread together with the “Healthy Family Night” program.

Each event opens the same. Families are assigned to a private table with an activity that encouraged families to talk. Later, the youngest of each family introduces all of their family members and shares their responses to the ice breaker.

During dinner, the children serve the parents and a new set of conversation starters are shared.

“Everything we do has a reason,” said Theresa Thompson, associate program director of school-based services for Family & Children’s Place.

“The kids serve the parents to establish hierarchy, and the parents get a break. We have the conversation starters because families have forgotten how to talk to each other.”

Purdue Extension Nutrition Education Program Advisor Cindy Finerfrock teaches the wellness aspect of the program – five weeks to the parents and five weeks to the children – and leads a cooking demonstration. The families work together to create their family’s version of the dish. When Cindy is not teaching, other community partners cover topics that concern parents like sex trafficking, vaping, and digital safety.

“I truly feel it’s been a wonderful way to empower an entire family unit with nutrition education,” Cindy said. “First, it helps parents to help them see themselves as a facilitator of meals, makes dinner fun, easy, and engaging, and eliminates food battles by inviting the children to plan, shop, and cook together more. It also helps youth so that food doesn’t become a power struggle, or is used as reward. It empowers children to make food choices, have a voice, and explore new foods and food combinations.”

Sara Yates, who attended the program with son, Chantz, 9, and daughter Brooklyn, 14, said the program helped her family.

“We really like it,” she said. “I feel like I have learned a lot. It makes it easier to make that time for dinner.”

Brooklyn agreed. “I just like to sit and talk with them. We were like, ‘How was your day?’ ‘Good.’ And then nothing. But here it is different. We are willing to try new things and we talk.”

Interestingly, almost all of the families that sign up, complete the program. Even the most withdrawn teenagers become engaged. Families report implementing their new found skills at home. Some refer family and friends. The host schools, too, continue to refer families.

Now, 23 years running, no one knows when or how NEP first became involved. Cindy replaced a retired NEPA who taught the program for years. Theresa said she knows people who still follow the program, including her family.

“I’ve been a participant, volunteer, and facilitator. I know it works.”