Family meals are about much more than people eating at the same time.
Eating more family meals is associated with the same smart food choices that promote a healthy weight: higher intake of fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods, as well as lower soft drink intake. Teens who eat more family meals have higher intakes of key nutrients like calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, E, B6, and folate, as well as fiber.
Plan one more family mealtime in every week. Take a quick inventory of how many times your family usually eats together now. Then plan to add just one more family mealtime per week. If dinnertime is too hectic, add a leisurely weekend breakfast or lunch. After a month or two of this new pattern, begin adding another family meal each week — until, before you know it, you are enjoying eating together at least five times every week.
Plan tasty menus for family meals together. If you think that putting a meal together has to be complicated or time consuming, think again. The best meals are simple, delicious and planned together. Share the responsibility by letting everyone choose a favorite menu for one day. Even small children can pick a main dish (like tacos or pasta), a veggie (green salad or cooked carrots) and fruit for dessert (sliced apples or canned peaches in juice). For sample menus and recipes visit www.choosemyplate.gov and click on "sample menus and recipes."
Plan to set a special table for family meals. Food is just one important part of mealtime. There are many other ways to set the mood for an enjoyable and relaxed time around the table together. A little extra attention to the actual table setting (with very little expense) can add a lot to mealtime atmosphere. Some inexpensive possibilities include: A candle, some colored napkins, or wipe-clean, plastic tablemats.
Plan to enjoy conversation at the table. Many mealtime benefits come from the conversations that families have while eating together. Choose conversation topics that are positive and allow everyone to participate.
Plan to turn off the TV and telephones. Treasure the time together by turning off TVs and all phones for the entire mealtime. Loud television noise and multiple phone calls (including text messages) can upset anyone's mealtime routine, making it difficult to eat or carry on a conversation. The solution is simple: Declare mealtime a TV- and phone-free zone (except for emergencies, of course). Turn off the distractions for just 30 minutes. Imagine you are dining at a nice restaurant and play some soothing background music at low volume.
For more on the benefits of family meals, visit www.mealsmatter.org and www.children.webmd.com.
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.