Life is so busy that sometimes it can become challenging to have a meal together. As a mom, I know that having even one family meal every day is not always possible—given the demands of work, volunteer commitments, sports and activities. With that in mind, instead of focusing on how often you can’t have meals together, shift the focus to making the most of the times when you can.
There is lots of research on family meals and the linked benefits: academic performance, language development, nutrition, prevention of eating disorders. Here are some of the highlights from the studies:
- Teens who have dinner with their family frequently are likely to score better in school and had fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
- Family meals provide an opportunity for children to develop and expand their vocabularies.
- Teens and children who have regular family meals eat more fruits and vegetables.
- hildren who have regular family meals are 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating.
My best tip for eating together more as a family is to develop a meal plan. Without a plan, it is nearly impossible to all sit down and enjoy a meal together.
To work on the plan, start by evaluating your schedule for the week ahead. Then plan out a couple of meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For dinners, balance what night you are having the meals based on the time that is required to prepare the meal. For extra-busy weeks, consider getting a meal or two ready on the weekend or on an evening when you have some downtime.
Once the plan is together, get your grocery list ready and stock up. Although this step seems obvious, without the supplies to make dinner happen, family meals will likely not become a reality.
Simple Dinner Ideas
Likely the meal that most families can have together is dinner, and simple is usually best. Of course, a family meal could even be breakfast or lunch if schedules did not allow for dinner to be together.
Try some of these meal ideas:
- Taco night: Make taco toppings ahead of time and store them in containers. This way all that needs to happen at mealtime is to brown the ground beef or opt for a bean mixture filling. If you want another side dish to go with the meal, try pairing it with brown rice or even sautéed corn.
- Stock up on frozen vegetables: While it is great to prepare and cook fresh veggies to serve with meals, it can be too time-consuming for some nights. Keeping bags of frozen vegetables on hand can help you add them to your meals speedily. Engage your children in helping select what vegetables are going with the meal.
- Pack dinner to take with you: Sometimes schedules do not allow you to actually be home for mealtime. If you are all together at a practice or sporting event, try packing a simple lunch or dinner to bring with you; that way some members of your family can eat together between activities. What to pack? How about chicken wraps, baby carrots and fruit? And remember the ice pack to keep foods in the proper and safe temperature range.
- Breakfast at dinner (or lunch): One of the quickest meals to get onto the table is breakfast at dinner; that is a favorite at our house. A quick breakfast at dinner formula: scrambled eggs (add in some veggies like peppers or onions), fruit and whole grain toast.
- Freeze leftovers: Make the most of your leftovers by freezing and storing in well-marked containers. Even make double of some meals that are family favorites. Then during super-busy weeks, you can pull from your leftovers stockpile. (On a notepad or in your phone, keep a list of what you’ve got in the freezer so your leftovers aren’t forgotten.)
Kitchen Gadgets and Ideas
There are many gadgets available now to make getting meals on the table easier. One of my favorite kitchen gadgets is a slow cooker. A few slow cooker meals at our house:
- Roasted chicken with vegetables: Place a whole roasting chicken in the slow cooker. Add baby carrots and large slices of onion. Fill the pot with chicken or vegetable stock and cook on low for eight to 10 hours.
- Chili: The best part about chili is there are so many different ways to vary the stew, from the types of beans you add to the spices you use. A bowl of chili on a cold night makes a great meal! Pair it with a slice of whole grain garlic toast.
- Curry: Similar to chili, there are numerous ways to make curry, and it is a go-to slow cooker meal in our house.
Growing in popularity as well is the pressure cooker (brand name Instant Pot). In contrast to a slow cooker, it can actually cook foods quickly. Long grain brown rice or soup can be ready in 12 to 15 minutes in a pressure cooker! Also, many pressure cookers are now equipped with a slow cooker option, so your cupboards do not get overfilled.
Don’t be too hard on yourself when it comes to family meals: If you aren’t eating any meals together today, start small. Make a goal of one or two meals a week as your schedules allow. Then over time, find ways to eat together even more often.
Molly Morgan is a registered dietitian and author of three books, including Drink Your Way to Gut Health. She lives in the Southern Tier area with her two children and husband. Visit her
online at Creative Nutrition Solutions.