This past year may have been the most cooking many people have done in quite a long time.
Once restaurants reopened, you may have even ditched your kitchen for the joy of being able to dine out again. Eating meals together is important and provides many benefits that go beyond nutrition.
During the month of September, we celebrate National Family Meals Month and this year I would challenge you to try to incorporate at least one more family meal each week.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, people who frequently cook meals at home eat healthier and consume fewer calories.
Better nutrition is absolutely an important benefit from cooking meals at home and dining together. Consumption of fruits and vegetables tends to be higher with meals eaten at home.
However, other benefits from these meals are just as valuable. Positive outcomes such as better grades, improved self-esteem, healthier weights and engagement in less risky behavior are all attributed to family meals.
Making meals electronic-free zones can be a challenge, but families who can disconnect from all the technology and spend time together over a meal have better bonded relationships. This time spent together gives children an opportunity to work on their social skills including learning table manners and how to have a conversation.
In an age where so much communication takes place electronically, children often have trouble articulating things as well as they should.
If you have family or cultural traditions, this is an opportunity to explore those further. Take this opportunity to create lasting memories in a fun way. Children are curious; feed their minds as well as their bodies.
In a world where so many are food insecure, family meals provide a sense of stability and routine. Studies have shown that this decreases the likelihood of engaging in activities such as smoking or drinking alcohol. Connecting over a meal allows children to receive the attention they need without having them turn to less than ideal tactics for this attention.
With childhood overweight and obesity continuing to trend up, family meals have been associated with lower rates of obesity. With our super-sized world, portion control is better achieved with family meals at home. Again, the quality of the food consumed is improved as well.
Instill confidence in your child by making them a part of the family meal planning and preparation. Learning basic cooking skills can help prepare them for life away from home. Each family member can have an age-appropriate role in setting up, preparing, or cleaning up the family meal. Setting your children up for success later in life starts at home.
Great reasons for trying to increase family meal but to be successful you need a plan. Keep in mind that not every family meal has to be an evening meal. You could plan family breakfast for the weekend days. A picnic lunch on a non-school day could be part of your plan. The point is by not locking yourself into one particular meal period, you open up the possibilities of what you can accomplish.
Begin by determining which days of the week you are most likely preparing a meal. Once you have done this, think of the foods that you would like to prepare. Get feedback from all the family members on meal ideas, this helps guarantee that the choices made are universally liked by all. After you have decided on your meal options review what items you already have in your pantry or freezer and then make your grocery list.
I try to make quick meals during the week and leave the more complex recipes for the weekend. I also like to have minimal clean-up so doing meals in the crock-pot, sheet pan, air fryer, grill or pressure cooker can help make cleaning fast. The internet can bring you a roundup of recipes to try. Be specific in your keywords. If you want something with minimal ingredients, try a search such as “5-ingredient chicken recipe.” The more you narrow down what you are looking for the easier to find the right recipe.
Do prep-work early. Chop veggies or slice meats ahead of time so you only have to put your food items together on cooking day. Think of meal ideas in terms of themes such as Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesdays. This gives you a little bit of structure as you are thinking of items to make, but leaves it open enough to look at a wide variety of options.
Still need something quick? Pick-up a main entrée and then at home add fruit, a vegetable and another side along with milk or water and you’ve easily improved on the quality of what your family is eating. Use convenience items wisely. Have a frozen pizza in your freezer? Toss a salad or cut up a veggie platter while it is cooking, add some fresh fruit for dessert and you have upgraded your meal. Make a super-fast stir fry with some cut-up chicken and a bag of frozen vegetables and microwaveable rice.
Spending time with family is important. Eating meals together can set the stage for our children to grow in healthier environments and learn skills that will be beneficial to them throughout their lives. There are great resources available to help start you on the path to improving your family’s health. Check out Family Meals Movement for meal ideas, conversation starters, and much more.
Until next time … Live Healthy!
Kimberly Alton, RD, CSSD, LD, is the director of food and nutrition services at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center. As COVID numbers begin to climb again, I thought this might be a great time to revisit some information that we discussed early in the pandemic last year. As you know, there is a ton of information to be found on everything COVID-related. Unfortunately, it is not all accurate.