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Nutrition
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Make Family Meals a Routine Success

Backpacks, sharpened pencils, and carpools. Check, check, check.

The new school year is underway, and in a few more weeks most families will be settled into their new normal routine for the school year.

Are regular family meals part of your routine?

Consistent family meals are just as important to your student’s academic and social success as homework and study sessions. Research is replete with the developmental benefits including better performance in school, fewer risky behaviors, and fewer eating disorders among kids who share meals with their families.

When kids and adults are engaged in food preparation and sit down to eat together, everyone eats more fruits, more dark orange and leafy green vegetables, more whole grains, more calcium-rich foods, and fewer sugar sweetened beverages and fast convenience foods.

Children and adolescents are actively growing and essentially building their body a little bit every day. What raw ingredients are provided for building materials?

Food nourishes more than our cells and body systems. It also transmits a sense of identity and culture. Food gives us an opportunity for connection.

Researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, often states that humans are hard-wired for connection. Each of us requires genuine authentic connections with others to give meaning to our lives. Food gives us a common ground to nurture those connections. Eating with others improves our well-being nutritionally and psychologically.

To have successful family meals, consider the following suggestions:

Plan ahead

People who plan meals ahead of time eat better, weigh less, and have fewer incidences of chronic disease. When we sacrifice time to think deliberately about our food, we make better choices.

Try these time-saving tips:

  • Make a list of all the entrees your family enjoys eating and keep it in a visible place. When you’re stumped about what to plan, consult your list instead of re-inventing the wheel.
  • Chop vegetables in advance on slow nights so they’re ready to cook or have plated for dinner another night.
  • Take out meat to thaw the night before so something is ready to cook when it’s time for dinner.
  • Try-slow cooker meals you can begin in the morning and enjoy later.
  • Double or triple an entree when you cook so you can have leftovers or freeze a whole batch to eat later in the month.
  • Prepare as much of dinner as you can while you’re cooking breakfast or lunch so you have less kitchen clean-up at the end of the day.

Ditch perfectionism

A shared meal doesn’t have to be Pinterest-worthy. The idea of having to have picture-perfect family meals with perfectly-behaved children, all in attendance at the same time, with delicious time-intensive meals can debilitate us and rob us from the benefits of good food and great connections.

In a family, not everyone has to be present for the benefits to take hold. Perhaps one parent could eat with each child as they individually return from ball practice and dance classes. Even sitting down while one person eats and the other person visits is beneficial.

If dinner is always a flop, try breakfast, lunch, or after school snack pick-me-ups.

Keep it simple

Though there are some who really enjoy preparing gourmet meals, don’t feel that you need to. Entrees and sides can be simple and still delicious and nourishing. Grilled sandwiches, simple steamed and roasted vegetables, broiled fish, baked chicken, and fresh fruit are all perfectly acceptable options for dinner. Aim to include at least three foods groups and “safe food” options for picky eaters–foods that kids can feel confident selecting and enjoying.

Unplug

Limit the distractions at meal times for more mindful eating, healthful choices, and meaningful conversations.

Keep the Peace

Arguments at dinner time don’t just ruin the mood, they disrupt appetites. When tensions run high, adults and children make unhealthy food choices. Though it can be tempting to resolve conflicts when everyone is together, arguments can trigger coping skills like comfort eating.

Ideally, mealtimes should be enjoyable and safe for all present. Feelings of security allow us to branch out and try new foods and engage with others.

Don’t give up

If you’ve tried making family meals a part of your routine in the past with no success, I encourage you to try again. You are not the same person, nor the same family today that you were yesterday.

Fueling our families well will bring dividends that are well worth our investment of time and energy. Even a few family meals more per week than you are currently holding will be beneficial–celebrate your successes and move forward with optimism.

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Written by Erica Hansen MS, RD, CD

Erica Hansen is a registered dietitian who owns the nutrition consulting company, Foods That Fit. She specializes in working with individuals and organizations to make their health and lifestyle goals fit into real life. She believes that getting back to the basics—preparing good, wholesome foods at home—is the first step to improving health.

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