By Katie Jeffrey, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Are you a parent or caregiver of children? If you are, you know how difficult it can be each day to enjoy one meal together as a family. This can be even more challenging when both parents work outside the home. Often times mom, dad and kids all have different schedules. A combination of busy schedules, extracurricular activities, meetings and play dates it may seem just about impossible to enjoy a family meal once a week let alone each day. According to Purdue University, surveys indicate that even though most families (80 percent) value mealtime together, the minority (33 percent) successfully achieve daily family meals. This is unfortunate because both kids and parents (or caregivers) benefit from family meals (Purdue Univ 2010).
Family meals extend beyond the food. They are a time for family members to tell about the day’s events, voice concerns, solve problems, share daily achievements, and receive and offer encouragement and advice. Conversation helps build relationships, strengthens family ties and improves communication and social skills. Family meals have been shown to make children stronger, smarter, and healthier (Baker 2010). Additionally, meals eaten as a family have been found to be positively associated with enhanced language achievement, better academic performance grades, improved dietary quality, obesity prevention, a reduction in risk-taking behaviors (Purdue Univ 2010), more courteous children, and positive emotional well-being (Baker 2010). These are all great reasons to enjoy meals as a family.
As a busy family you may be wondering how you can possibly fit in family meal time each day or week. Here are a few suggestions to help make family meals a reality for your family each day or a few times each week.
Any Meal Can Be a Family Meal: Dinner is not the only meal that families can enjoy together. If it is easier for your family to eat breakfast together during the week then designate it as family meal time. On the weekends, it may be planning a weekly family brunch or lunch rather than dinner when kids are often at friends’ houses or practices. Be creative with how your family fits in eating together.
Plan Ahead. Choose a day such as, Sunday, and review the upcoming week’s schedule to determine the days and times when meals will occur. Then enlist the help of your family and make a list of possible meals to prepare along with a grocery list. Decide when the grocery will be done, whose responsibility it is, and which meals will work best each day based on everyone’s schedules. For instance, if you or your spouse has more time on Tuesday mornings use your Crockpot to prepare a meal that will be ready when everyone gets home. If you have additional time on a week night prepare a casserole or lasagna for the next day that someone can simply put in the oven to cook. Or, prepare larger meals during the week so that you can either enjoy leftovers later that week or freeze extras for a busy night. Another strategy is to prepare a few meals on the weekend that can be either refrigerated for a few days and then cooked later in the week or frozen and then cooked later in the month.
Be Prepared. Stock your pantry, refrigerator and freezer with healthy food items that can be used to prepare nutritious, quick and tasty meals (Mayfield, B 2010). For the pantry, keep nonperishable food items on hand such as, low sodium and low saturated fat soups, whole grain or whole wheat pasta, quinoa, whole wheat couscous, quick cooking brown rice, whole grain all-purpose baking mix, tomato sauce, and canned fish or chicken packed in water. Keep your refrigerator filled with eggs, cheese, milk, fruit, vegetables and/or a bagged salad. For the freezer, store such food items as frozen vegetables and fruits, vegetable burgers, lean meat or turkey burgers, all natural low-fat chicken or turkey sausages, and whole wheat bread.
Post a list of meals that are easy to prepare and your family likes on the inside of a cabinet door or on the refrigerator. You may want to try breakfast for dinner: scrambled eggs with cheese and vegetables, toast and a glass of milk or a glass of milk plus whole grain pancakes topped with yogurt, slices of banana and frozen berries (that have been thawed in the microwave) and sprinkled with cinnamon. Three other quick-to-prepare meals are: 1) pasta with sauce, bread and a salad; 2) a tuna fish or chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce and tomato served with carrot sticks and pepper slices and a glass of milk; or, 3) soup and hot sandwich night (melt the cheese in a toaster oven or using the broil setting on the oven). Delicious, healthy meals do not have to be fancy or take a long time to prepare. Some of your family’s favorite dishes may take the least amount of time to prepare.
Make meal preparation a family affair. Working as a team to prepare meals makes cooking fun, adds to the time you have to talk and bond with one another and reduces the time required for meal preparation. It also teaches children important life skills such as, how to: read and follow a recipe, properly and safely cut food, measure ingredients, clean up after themselves and work as a team. Additionally, preparing a meal with a parent gives children a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. To help reduce opposition from children kitchen helpers give them a sense of control in how they would like to help the family by offering each child two age-appropriate job options and letting them choose which one they would like to complete. Selecting neither is not an option! If they finish one task have them complete the second one. Either have the task choices remain the same or rotate each day or week. Rotation will reduce boredom at completing the same job every day. Examples of tasks may be setting the table, washing vegetables, cutting vegetables, making a side dish or salad, and washing the tabletop. Working as a family to prepare meals can be enjoyable and time saving.
Select Healthy Foods when Dining Out. Many restaurants now offer healthier options. Choose more nutritious food items such as, grilled or baked meats or fish, side salads, steamed vegetables, fruit cups, and milk. Minimize the times you use the “drive-thru” and eat in the car. Instead, enjoy a sit-down meal in the restaurant and spend quality time with your family (Mayfield, B 2010).
By planning ahead, working as a family, and making eating together a priority, you and your family can make family meal time a reality. Enjoy the time eating together to share laughs and the day’s events, develop strategies to solve family, friend or individual issues, and bond as a family. Family meals were an extremely important part of my childhood and continue to be an integral part of my life today. My husband and I strive to eat together at the dining room table without the TV on most days of the week and my family and I (grandparents, parents, sister, brother in-law, niece and husband) enjoy Sunday dinner together almost every weekend. Eating with loved ones is a time I treasure and hope that you will also find the importance of sharing a meal with the ones you love. Happy and healthy eating to you and yours!
Look for next month’s article on how to make family meals enjoyable.