By Paul Schattenberg
A&M AgriLife Extension
Family meals can fit into even the busiest of schedules and offer a host of benefits for childen and adults alike, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
“Family meals are a great time to connect with each other and share the day’s experiences,” said Odessa Keenan, AgriLife Extension program specialist, Bryan-College Station. “And having family mealtime is a positive way for everyone to relax after a hectic day of work, school and errands.”
Keenan said far from being just for special occasions, family meals can be possible any time of day and any day of the week.
“The routine of sitting down together makes it necessary to commit to carving out time for others and creating work schedule boundaries that promote a balance between work and personal life,” she said. “With proper planning, preparation, recipes and tools, families can find time to sit together and enjoy quick, easy-to-make nutritious meals.”
Meal planning and time-savers
Keenan said good meal planning and cooking equipment can help people work around family mealtime constraints.
“A crockpot or slow cooker can be used to prepare meals in the morning that can be eaten in the afternoon or evening,” she said. “And if you’re trying cook a meal more quickly, you can use an instant pot, which can cook food in half the usual time. Also, air fryers are a great tool to cut down on the amount of oil used to cook your foods.”
She said frozen and canned vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh vegetables and can be great tools to help you plan your meal and reduce food waste.
“However, be cautious of added sodium in canned vegetables, and always look for a low sodium or no-salt-added version,” Keenen said.
Keenan said there are many easy-to-make recipes and tips for preparing healthy, nutritious and delicious family meals on the Dinner Tonight! website.
“The Dinner Tonight! program was developed to provide busy families with quick, healthy, cost-effective recipes that taste great,” she said. “Not only does the website provide recipes, but it also has weekly video demonstrations about cooking tips and techniques, nutritional information, menu planning basics and advice on healthy living.”
Nutritional benefits of family mealtime
Some research studies have found a link between the frequency of family meals and improved characteristics of a child’s diet, including increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and less consumption of fast food, said Jenna Anding, Ph.D., RDN, professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“If you are trying to eat a little healthier this year, preparing more meals at home can be a good place to start,” she said. “According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most foods served outside the home tend to have more calories and fewer nutrients compared to those prepared in the home.”
Anding said this is because variables such as portion sizes and added sodium and sugar can be adjusted in the home-cooked meals.
“Preparing more meals at home gives you greater opportunity to make your favorite meals healthier because you are in control of what goes into them and the way they are cooked,” she said.
Conversation and family mealtime
“Family mealtime creates a feeling of togetherness and family cohesion, which also applies in single-parent homes and the homes of couples without children,” Keenen said. “It can be a source of positive memories for you and your family. Mealtime conversation often brings the family together and helps promote positive self-esteem in children.”
Keenan said it is important to engage children in conversation about proper nutrition and eating habits, and family mealtime presents a perfect opportunity for this.
“You will want to create a supportive and encouraging environment for this conversation,” she said. “Try and converse with them on their level, based on where they are emotionally and intellectually that day. You can steer the conversation toward the benefits of healthier eating, including trying new foods.”
She also suggested banning cell phones or electronic devices at the table during family mealtime and not watching television while eating to reduce distractions and promote conversation.
Involving kids in family mealtime
Having children help prepare meals provides lots of opportunities for learning and life skill practice, said Jodi Nerren, Ph.D., assistant professor and AgriLife Extension family and community health specialist, Bryan-College Station.
“Obviously, cooking experiences need to be appropriate for each child’s developmental abilities, but even older infants and toddlers can help by pouring ingredients into a pot or holding onto the handle of a spoon while you stir,” Nerren said.
She also said children involved in selecting and preparing meals tend to be more receptive to eating the food.
“This can be especially helpful when you’re dealing with a picky eater or when you’re trying to encourage the kids to try new, healthier options,” Nerren said.
She also noted sitting down with parents while everyone eats the same food helps younger children learn healthy attitudes about food.
“Parents can make the most of this learning opportunity by enthusiastically modeling eating a variety of healthy foods,” Nerren said. “Try talking about the colors, textures and other characteristics of each type of food on your plate as a way to build excitement about healthy eating.”
Keenan added that involving children in meal planning also introduces them to basic math and science concepts.
“They can learn about how to measure solids and liquids as well as how to make conversions from the metric system to the English system,” she said. “And they can also learn about food groups and nutrients in foods and how they work together to provide proper nutrition and a well-balanced diet.”
She said family mealtime also provides an opportunity to teach children proper etiquette and social skills while they learn about fitness and nutrition.
“It’s also fun for kids to be involved in cooking for family mealtime,” she said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and family responsibility.”
She said to get children more interested in family meals, the Dinner Tonight! program has developed many “kid-friendly” recipes designed to suit the tastes of younger people.
Getting kids to try new foods
Keenan said one of the most challenging aspects of family mealtime can be getting children to try foods they are not familiar with or have preconceived notions about their taste or texture.
She offered the following tips on getting children to try new foods:
— Offer a new food first, at the beginning of a meal.
“Children are more likely to eat a new vegetable or try a different food when they are hungry,” she said. “Be sure to serve them the new food before serving the rest of the meal, but don’t try to force or cajole them if they are resistant to trying it. You can try and reintroduce it later, but the important thing is to make it the child’s choice to eat it.”
— Prepare new foods in different ways.
“Sometimes it is not the food the child doesn’t like but the way it is prepared,” Keenan said. “If your child does not like the food the first time, try it again — either raw or cooked in a dish rather than by itself.”
— Engage your children in foods by having them describe the food by color, shape, feel, smell and sound.
“Ask your children to describe the food you want them to eat in a positive way,” she said. “If you can somehow make trying new foods fun, this will help them develop a taste for new and different foods.”
— Get children into the garden and let them grow their favorite vegetables.
“If you have a garden or even a small container, have your children grow a new vegetable or fruit and let them decide how they might want it prepared for them to eat,” Keenan said.
— Try new foods with your children.
“Children learn from watching others, so if you try new foods, your children are more likely to want to try them with you,” she said. “Food variety makes eating more interesting and provides a wider range of options to incorporate into a healthy eating pattern.”