Oh, the holidays: That special time when you set the table with your good plates, and admire and enjoy a home-cooked meal for the first time in a long time. Sitting down for a family meal is common around the holidays, even if it isn’t so common every other time of the year.
Maybe it should be. There has been significant research to show that family meals are associated with a multitude of benefits for children and adolescents not only in regards to nutrition, but also psychosocially.
More specifically, an increased frequency of family meals is associated with a reduced likelihood of unhealthy eating, due to positive influences on fruit and vegetable consumption, lower consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and lower consumption of unhealthy foods among children and adults. Additionally, children and adolescents who had regular family meals are less likely to be overweight both presently, and 10 years later. Not only do family meals have a positive impact on healthy eating and body weight, but they can also contribute to reductions in substance abuse, violence, sexual activity, mental health issues and self-harm among our young people.
A family meal is any meal shared among those living in the same household, served family style, at a table, with no TV and everyone eating at the same time. Sound impossible in your family? Probably! There are many barriers to having regular family meals. If both parents work it can be difficult to find time to meal prep, shop or cook at all. If you live in a single-headed household, the cost of groceries can be a barrier. For those with older children in extracurricular activities, it can be hard to even find a time when everyone is home simultaneously, and for those with adolescents it can be a struggle to reign them in when they are fighting for autonomy and their own independence.
As with any behavior change, it does not happen overnight and it is not always easy, but it is always worth it. Here are a few ideas to help get you going in the right direction.
1. Keep the meal simple. You do not have to make a gourmet meal with 30 different ingredients each night. Find proteins that are already seasoned and can be cooked in the oven. Go for the frozen bag of mixed veggies and throw it in a pan. Then add some seasoned rice or a side of roasted potatoes for your starch. Find a small group of go-to meals like this to keep things easy on a busy day.
2. Choose ingredients for more than one meal. For example, grill six chicken breasts for dinner instead of three and then reheat the leftovers for fajitas the next night.
3. Share the experience. Encourage your kids to help brainstorm dinner ideas or to help prepare the meal. This can be especially helpful with picky eaters. Kids are more likely to actually eat the food they helped prepare. In fact, there is a fun cooking class offered here in Houston by The Clever Kitchen that not only teaches you how to cook the food, but sends you home with at least five new recipes.
4. Make family meals a habit. Once it is part of your routine, there will be less fuss about and it will be built into your schedule.
5. Make them fun! You can theme it up if you want. Meatless Monday and Taco Tuesday are both popular themes in my house.
So, whether it’s for the first time in a long time, or something you are already doing every once in a while, consider making family meals part of your healthy lifestyle.
Maddy Falivene, MS, RD, LD, is a dietitian and spin-class instructor in Houston who has a graduate degree in clinical nutrition.
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