Healthy Meals Together with Family
When was the last time you sat down with your family at the table and shared food and conversation, without TV, tablets or phones? For most families, it’s probably been a while.
Getting everyone together to share a meal makes more than wonderful memories. According to Johns Hopkins clinical dietitian Jaclyn Rose, there’s research supporting health benefits for adults and kids who regularly dine together. And, with a few practical tips, family dinners can be quick and hassle-free.
Health Benefits of Family Meals
“Patterns developed in childhood can shape an adult’s relationship with food and set a foundation for healthy eating habits,” Rose says.
Regular family meals can be a part of that process, giving parents and guardians a chance to get more nutritious foods into their families’ diets and model positive eating practices, with proven benefits:
- Better nutrition. “Family meals typically involve more fruits and vegetables than fast food or casual restaurant fare,” Rose reports. “Plenty of research shows that regular family meals increase overall intake of calcium-rich foods, fruits and vegetables, fiber, folate and vitamins A, C, E and B6.”
- Healthier behaviors. Family meals nourish and strengthen more than the body. “Research studies show that eating together regularly can reduce the chance of a child or teen engaging in risky behaviors such as using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana,” she notes.
- Smarter eating for life. Preparing food at home and enjoying it with family members can help kids learn more about nutrients, sustainability, cooking techniques and other aspects of nutrition that can shape their food choices as they grow.
- Staying safer with food allergies. Since so many children nowadays have food sensitivities and allergies, learning how to make meals is a valuable skill to learn at home. “If your child has a food allergy or food sensitivity, learning to cook with safe substitutes is a great skill to teach them,” Rose says. “They can feel more independent knowing what ingredients are OK and how to use them in foods they enjoy.”
It’s OK to Keep It Simple
“Time constraints are the main barrier to regular family meals,” Rose says. “But there are ways you can make it easy on yourself. A family dinner doesn’t have to be an elaborate feast prepared from scratch. In fact, it’s absolutely acceptable to keep things simple.”
Here are some family-friendly dinner shortcuts to try:
- Bagged salad greens
- Frozen vegetables
- Rotisserie chickens
- Meatless burgers with a selection of healthy toppings
- Time-saving preparation methods such as crock pots and air fryers. (“Kids love chicken fingers and fries, and an air fryer offers a healthier way to prepare those,” Rose says.)
If you’re still drawing a blank on what to serve, Rose notes there are plenty of good ideas for family dinners, including healthy recipes, on Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and U.S. Department of Agriculture websites.
Getting Kids Involved
A family meal starts with preparation, Rose says, and involving children in the process benefits them in myriad ways. “Children can take pride in a dish or meal they help make,” Rose says.
For instance, you can let kids help by:
Choosing menu items or healthy beverages to enjoy with their meal. Rose says while it’s important to ensure healthy items such as vegetables are well represented on the table, children can have input and choose their favorites.
Assisting with food prepping. Safety comes first: Rose says to make sure children are old enough before allowing them to work with heat or sharp edges, but she adds that even small children may be able to:
- Rinse produce in a colander
- Tear salad greens
- Stir with a spoon
- Put food into serving dishes and add garnishes
- Operate the microwave
Eating Healthy During Adolescence
At the Table
Rose says families with older children or teens may pass bowls, plates and platters around the table and serve themselves, but suggests for smaller dinner guests, it’s better for an adult to prepare the plate and give it to the child.
“Adults can ensure their children’s plates have appropriate portions and a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables,” she says, noting, “When kids serve themselves, they tend to overfill their plates and concentrate on their favorite thing on the table, such as mashed potatoes.”
Rose adds that helping kids see what an appropriate serving size of food looks like is helpful. “When kids see a normal serving on their plate, they can more easily envision and gauge healthy portion sizes on their own.”
Keep It Positive
In addition to healthy food in appropriate portions, other aspects of eating together can encourage the gang to gather at the table regularly.
- Colorful tableware and decorations can enhance the experience. Small children may enjoy eating from a special plate or using cutlery just for the occasion.
- Take a break from gadgets and distractions. It may feel odd at first, but Rose emphasizes the value of setting aside electronics, turning off the TV and enjoying one another’s company.
- Laughter is a good emotional release and eases tension.
- Steer conversation topics toward happy memories, things to look forward to and pleasant subjects.
“A warm, relaxed atmosphere is essential,” she says.
Scheduling Family Meals
Making a commitment to eating together regularly can be challenging. Family members have their own schedules, and, when absorbed in their devices, live in their own worlds.
Expecting everyone around the table every evening at dinnertime may not be realistic at first. Rose recommends starting with one or two days a week and gradually adding on if and when it feels right.
The object is to get more family face time and better nutrition on the table to make everyone in the household feel better both mentally and physically.
“It’s worth the effort,” Rose says.
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