If you have school-age kids, one of the best things about summer is a break in the daily routine. No alarm clocks, no homework, no racing to make it to school before the first bell.
But there’s one routine you should hold firm to, no matter what time of year: Eating healthy dinners together.
You’ve probably heard that eating as a family has a strong impact on kids’ physical and emotional development. A good example is the research that has shown time and again that eating together can reduce childhood obesity.
In one study, kids who had regular family meals ate more fruits, vegetables and fiber and less fried food, soda and harmful fats. Another study found kids who ate dinner with their family were less likely to be obese as young adults. The reason? They learned healthy habits early — and they continued to eat more fruits and vegetables once they were on their own.
The benefits of the family dinner table aren’t just related to the food. It’s also a safe place for kids to share what’s going on in their lives, and find out about yours. If you have trouble getting the conversation going, try these ideas.
Research also shows that kids and teens who eat with their families have better academic performance, higher self-esteem and lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression and eating disorders.
Even with all those good reasons to gather around the table, it can be overwhelming for some families to make it happen. Maybe you work all day and don’t feel you have time to cook. Or you can barely boil water, let alone get a full meal on the table.
Well, you can relax. Here are a few tips to get you from the doorway to dinner in no time!
Keep It Simple
You are not cooking for the judges on “Chopped,” so go easy on yourself. Grill some chicken breasts and veggies or make sloppy Joes with ground turkey. The freezer section at your local grocery store is filled with a variety of steamable vegetables. Make a package of broccoli, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve as an easy and delicious side dish.
It‘s well worth taking a half hour on the weekend to plan the coming week’s meals. Make sure you have all the ingredients in the house so you don’t have to shop during the workweek. It’s much easier to give in and order takeout after a long day at work if you don’t have a plan. Check out How to Stock a Healthy Refrigerator for tips on keeping your fridge filled with ingredients for easy, healthy meals.
Once you have your menu and ingredients, figure out what you can do ahead of time. Chop the vegetables you’ll need in the next few days. Even better, let older kids do some of the chopping. They’ll learn a valuable skill and you’ll get more time together. Brown the ground turkey and grill the chicken, then refrigerate until you need them. Make marinara sauce or turkey chili and refrigerate or freeze. Important note: Make sure you know how long it’s safe to keep cooked foods in the fridge.
Dinnertime should be a highlight of your day, not something to check off a list. Make sure your table is clutter-free. Use nice glass plates or pretty paper ones. Set the table with festive placemats and cups. Perhaps most important, make sure everyone silences their smartphones and other devices and stores them in another room. Family time should be sacred time.
A final note: Even the best-laid plans go awry. A meeting at work runs late or practice goes an extra half hour. When those things happen, give yourself a break. It’s OK to eat pizza or hot dogs around the table occasionally. The most important thing is that you’re eating together.
Find healthy eating tips and recipes on the web. This Healthy Eating Plate diagram, available in over 20 languages, can help you make better nutritional choices. The Food Network offers healthy, kid-friendly recipes and videos. And learn how to get your kids involved in meal prep using this handy guide.
Sources: The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations, The Journal of Pediatrics, 2015; Family Meals During Adolescence Are Associated with Higher Diet Quality and Healthful Meal Patterns during Young Adulthood, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2007; The Importance of Family Dinners, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), 2007; The Family Dinner Project; Healthy Eating Plate, Harvard University School of Public Health, 2011; Healthy, The Food Network; Getting Kids in the Kitchen, National Institutes of Health