‘Dinner Tonight!’ program promotes healthy eating with recipes, videos, cooking schools

By Paul Schattenberg

Texas AgriLife Extension Service

0The idea of a family sitting down together for a meal may seem passé in today’s fast-paced, drive-through society, but a statewide initiative by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is helping families eat healthier — and be together – at mealtime.

“The percentage of the food budget spent on away-from-home food has increased steadily since the 1970s and so has the number of calories,” said Dr. Susan Ballabina, AgriLife Extension associate director for program development, College Station. “There are so many families where both parents work and the kids are on their computers or watching TV and don’t want to stop what they’re doing to have family mealtime.”

She said many parents are also overwhelmed by the idea of menu planning, especially when it comes to preparing healthy, cost-effective meals.

“The Dinner Tonight! program was developed by AgriLife Extension agents statewide with the knowledge and expertise to provide resources and recipes to help encourage at-home family mealtime,” Ballabina said. “It provides quick, nutritious, cost-effective recipes to consumers through weekly video cooking webcasts and other web-based methods, including blogs and Facebook, and through healthy cooking schools.”

Every Monday, a new video demonstration is released by a member of the agency’s statewide Dinner Tonight! team, she said.

Ballabina said there are now more than 250 free video webcasts of easy-to-prepare, nutritious recipes available at http://healthyliving.tamu.edu under the Dinner Tonight! tab. Recipe groupings include chicken, beef, seafood, pork, turkey, vegetarian, salads, soups, sandwiches casseroles and slow-cooker. The videos have been televised in Dallas and Austin media markets.

“These videos average three to five minutes and are produced in a similar manner as mainstream television cooking shows, she said. “The site is updated every Monday with a new recipe and webcast (comma) and families can sign up on the website to receive weekly emails announcing new recipes.”

She added that in 2013 there were 18,049 unique visitors from over 50 countries or territories to the Dinner Tonight! website and that currently there are more than 1,700 people following Dinner Tonight! on Facebook.

“We ask program participant to fill out a survey so we can see if we are meeting our goals, and a large majority of respondents have stated they intend to incorporate new, healthy foods in their diet, as well as eat more fruits and vegetables and plan healthy meals in advance,” she said. “And all participants who responded said what they learned would benefit their families.”

To further help Texans plan and prepare healthful meals, the initiative added healthy cooking schools to its programming in 2012, Ballabina said. Last year, 25 Dinner Tonight! Healthy Cooking Schools were conducted throughout the state, reaching over 1,960 people, and many more have already been conducted this year.

“These programs are typically, but not exclusively, held in the evening and are about two hours long,” she said. “And while the cooking schools were piloted in more urban areas of Texas, as the program has grown they have also been introduced in many rural areas of the state.”

“In the agency’s East Region last year, the AgriLife Extension office in Dallas presented some interesting cooking schools in cooperation with Methodist Dallas Medical Center and Methodist Charlton Medical Center near Duncanville,” said Paula Butler, AgriLife Extension regional program leader for family and consumer sciences, Dallas. A total of 422 people participated in the two programs.

Butler said the program was unique in that hospitals provided a full meal for the event participants and involved their own chefs, as well as a chef from Whole Foods, in program food preparation demonstrations. Additionally, hospital system chefs prepared a complete meal for all program participants.

The first Dinner Tonight! Healthy Cooking School in nearby Tarrant County was held in September of last year to offer a “face-to-face educational opportunity to teach families about meal planning and healthy food preparation,” Butler added.

“Two full menus were demonstrated along with a taste-tasting provided for members of the audience,” she said. “There were breakout sessions on basic knife skills, how to prepare a vinaigrette and label reading provided between the two menu demonstrations. And door prizes related to nutrition and health were raffled throughout the evening.”

She said AgriLife Extension is also working with Texas 4-H to host a Dinner Tonight! activity with Texas 4-H at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas this October. This will be held in conjunction with the National 4-H Food Challenge and will be held in the fair’s Creative Arts building. Texas 4-H is a statewide youth development organization of AgriLife Extension.

More than 220 people also participated in a Dinner Tonight! cooking school held last September at the Tri-Point Conference Center in San Antonio. Along with AgriLife Extension, Prairie View A&M Cooperative Extension Program, and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program experts, the school featured local celebrity chefs Susan Johnson of Don Strange Ranch and Richard Ojeda of Black Tie Affairs Catering.

“We also had tasting areas set up so attendees could sample the recipes and speak with our staff about menu items using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients,” said Dr. Connie Sheppard, AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agent for Bexar County.

“I really enjoyed the recipes demonstrated at the cooking school and enjoyed the food samples,” said event participant Carol Law. “One of the things I especially liked was that the presenters also told us how to make their recipes even healthier by substituting certain lower-fat or lower-calorie ingredients.”

One of the most recent healthy cooking schools was presented at Austin Community College’s Eastview Campus and coordinated by Sonia Coyle, AgriLife Extension agent for family and consumer science in Travis County. Coyle said more than 150 people participated in the program, which featured demonstrations of two easy and nutritious menu items that could be prepared in 30 minutes or less.

“The schools provide an opportunity to combine the resources and expertise of Texas A&M University System personnel and are a great way for Texans to get together in a fun environment and have our experts and others show them how to plan and prepare good meals for themselves and their families,” she said.

AgriLife Extension’s District 8 and District 9, which take in numerous central and southeast Texas counties have developed a different approach to conducting the cooking schools in their counties, said Dana Tarter, AgriLife Extension regional program leader  – family and consumer sciences and 4-H and youth development, Vernon. “They do a roadshow approach with agents from various counties working together as a team to present the school in each of their counties.”

Tarter said a Dinner Tonight! roadshow last month in Milam County drew about 50 participants. The event, held at the Family Life Center of the First United Methodist Church in Cameron, was presented by AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agents from Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Lee, Milam, Montgomery and Walker counties.

Meals demonstrated and sampled at the event included roast beef and blue cheese salad, herb and vegetable rice, lemon-buttered fish, apple-pecan pork tenderloin, tomatoes Florentine, slow-cooker sweet potatoes, fruit trifle, white chocolate ice cream pudding and strawberry cheesecake.

“It was a thrill to be there and enjoy all the tasting plus learning new recipes and nutritional information,” said Rose Mondrick, a local radio show host and event attendee. “Your staff displayed a great sense of knowledge and orchestrated the event like an opera.”

“I absolutely look forward the the Dinner Tonight! cooking school every year.  The recipes are healthy and easy to prepare along with tasting great,” said Roxann Gray, a program coordinator at  H.R. Jefferies Junior High in the Comanche Independent School District. “I attended the Dinner Tonight! program at Stephenville and it was fun and enjoyable.  The presentation was fantastic.”

In Fort Bend County, an abbreviated lunchtime Dinner Tonight! program was recently presented in conjunction with a vegetable conference coordinated by area AgriLife Extension agriculture and horticulture agents.

“We actually did more of a ‘Lunch Today!’ version at the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds,” said Dianne Gertson, AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agent for the county. “We demonstrated some vegetable recipes during lunchtime, and for the conference lunch we arranged for the event caterer to serve participants some Dinner Tonight! recipes we chose for them.

“They served 225 people skillet barbecue chicken, potato salad, broccoli slaw and carrot-zucchini bars with lemon cream cheese frosting. And during lunch, we agents demonstrated how to prepare oven-roasted vegetables, sweet potato fries and veggie enchiladas.”

According to Elaine Fries, AgriLife Extension regional program leader for family and consumer sciences in Corpus Christi, agency personnel throughout South Texas will be presenting programming this fall to supplement the Dinner Tonight! goal of revitalizing family mealtime.

“During late September of this year, 31 counties with AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences programs in the agency’s Southeast Region will host various educational events promoting family mealtime,” Fries said.

In addition to improved communication with family, studies show that children who sit in on family meals eat healthier diets and perform better in school, said Amanda Scott, AgriLife Extension program specialist with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, College Station.

“Research shows that compared to children who seldom participate in family meals, children who sit down to regular family meals consume more fruits, vegetables and fiber, consume less soda and fried foods, and eat less heart-damaging saturated and trans fats.” Scott said. “Families who eat together also have more time and opportunities to communicate and build relationships, and these children tend to perform better academically.”

“We hope this statewide, multi-agency, multi-faceted approach will further help promote family togetherness, improve family health through better nutrition, reduce obesity and provide a better overall quality of life for Texas families,” Ballabina said.

She said Dinner Tonight! will continue to evolve and expand through the development of more community partnerships, broadening Dinner Tonight! programs, including offering more healthy cooking schools, and additional educational outreach.

For more information on Dinner Tonight! go to the Healthy Living website athttp://healthyliving.tamu.edu.


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