By Karen Buch, RDN, LDN
The struggle is real. Juggling jobs, kids and the demands of busy lives can come at the expense of family mealtime at home. However, research shows eating together as a family—regularly around the dinner table—can have important, long-reaching benefits to the health and wellness of children and adolescents to fight obesity and substance abuse and make families stronger. September, Family Meals Month, reminds us about the life-long benefits of family meals. Try these tips to help you on your way to eating at least one more home meal each week together with your family!
Eating Smart Starts in Your Cart
For my family, the grocery store is the place where healthful family meals start. I truly believe eating smart starts right in my grocery cart. My kids frequently accompany me on my weekly food shopping trips. I encourage them to talk about the foods that they want me to buy and why. We discuss the reasons I may or may not say “yes” to their particular requests. In my mind, these trips are helping to educate my kids about how to plan for meals and build a foundation of healthier habits.
Planning is Key
Did you know that 63 percent of Americans decide what to eat less than one hour before eating? Planning for meals is a key strategy to improve the nutrition quality and frequency of family meals. I always keep a magnetic shopping pad displayed on the side of my microwave to plan meals and shopping for the week. In addition, I add pantry staples to my shopping list at the moment that I run out. I’m a visual person, so paper and pencil works best for me. Similarly, tech-savvy folks can use a smart phone or electronic assistant such as Alexa, Siri or Google to make planning easier. By making this step a habit, family meal food shopping will become faster and easier.
Start in the Produce Aisle
I like to start every food shopping trip in the produce aisle. Research shows 90 percent of US adults aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. So, encouraging my kids to eat fruits and veggies is a top priority. We shop for weekly salad greens and plenty of other fresh fruits and vegetables, while choosing a mix of items to serve raw and steamed. In addition, I look for specific items that are easy to pack in school lunches and serve as after-school snacks such as apples, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, carrots, celery, cucumbers and bananas. For more ideas, search #EatAPlant.
Stretch Your Food Dollars
We keep healthy eating affordable at our house by planning meals that include foods that are on sale. Using the ad circular effectively helps me save 20 to 30 percent off of my grocery bill, on average. I keep a pantry of meal starters on hand and stock up on non-perishable staples, such as canned beans, oats, rice, pasta and frozen bagged vegetables, when on sale at a discounted price. Coupons, paper and electronic versions, from your favorite grocer can save you big bucks too.
Invite Kids to Help in the Kitchen
Certainly meal preparation will be more neat and tidy if you do all of the meal prep yourself. But, don’t miss out on a crucial opportunity to teach kids much needed life skills. Encouraging kids to help prepare meals can help reduce picky eating and build a “yes, I can” attitude when it comes to cooking. Give kids age-appropriate tasks and ask for their input on what side dishes to serve with a planned main dish. Let hungry helpers snack on raw fruits and vegetables while their appetite is at its greatest and the main meal is not yet ready to serve.
Double Duty Meal Prep
Another strategy that I use to cut back on meal prep time is to make my time spent preparing meat or poultry serve “double duty” to make two completely separate meals. For example, use one cut of top-round steak to make classic London Broil one night and use remaining cooked beef slices to make fresh salsa fajita wraps. Make slow-braised, seasoned chicken breasts one night and use the remaining chicken broth to make creamy mushroom and parmesan risotto or chicken noodle soup the next. Make turkey tacos with Mexican rice and black beans one night and use the leftovers to make easy taco salad or skillet quesadillas. This cook once, serve twice mindset can really simplify your weekly meal routine.
Make Dinner Time—Positive Family Time
Meals should be a safe zone of positivity, not a power struggle between picky eaters and parents. Encourage your kids to try new foods during shared mealtimes without judgment and offer praise just for the act of trying something new. Discourage others from “yucking” someone else’s yummy food choice. And, most of all make family mealtime a device-free zone where everyone gets a chance to engage in meaningful conversations to learn more about each other’s lives. Share your family meal experiences, favorite recipes, solutions and pitfalls using #FamilyMealsMonth.
Karen Buch, RDN, LDN is a Central Pennsylvania-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who promotes the healthy enjoyment of food. Her mission is to help consumers better understand the connection between food, nutrition and health. As founder of Nutrition Connections LLC, Karen provides food, nutrition and culinary communications consulting services to the food industry nationwide. Connect with her on the web at Karenbuch.com or follow her on facebook: Nutrition Connections LLC, instagram:@karenbuch1, twitter: @karenbuch and the blog: Food News & Reviews.