October is national Eat Better, Eat Together month and the perfect time to focus on an important subject…family meals! It is unfortunate that the frequency of family meals has been progressively declining in our society despite the many benefits of eating together.  Family dinners are linked with more nutritious meals and greater consumption of a variety of important nutrients. Children and adolescents who eat with their parents are more likely to eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low fat dairy and tend to have higher intakes of important nutrients such as calcium, iron, potassium, B vitamins and vitamins E and C, zinc, folate and fiber.  Studies also suggest a possible link between family dinners and lower prevalence of child-hood obesity.

Aside from nutritional benefits, children and adolescents who eat with their families are also more likely to perform better in school and have fewer behavioral problems including alcohol and drug abuse. Perhaps most importantly, family meals provide the perfect time for communication and reconnecting with loved ones after a long day.

Try these 3 simple tips to start eating better together!

1: Plan: One of the biggest barriers to family dinners is lack of planning.  Look over the calendar and find a few times per week where everyone can come together to enjoy a family meal.  Even just starting with one family meal per week is better than none! Schedule an hour time block once per week to plan recipes and prepare a shopping list. Ask family members for ideas for balanced meals to get everyone involved. You can also assign one night a week (or more) to a type of cuisine like “spaghetti” or “taco night” for easier planning.  Remember to incorporate important food groups including whole grains, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats to promote balanced eating and greater nutrient intake. If time is an issue, do some prep work when you have more free time (such as Sunday) before hitting the busy work week.  Precooking whole grains, baking meats and chopping vegetables can make for quick and easy home-cooked meals during the work week (use cooked foods within 3-4 days or store in freezer).  You can even make double batches of main entrees and store half in the freezer to pull out for last-minute meals.

2. Involve: Get kids involved in the cooking process when possible. This is a great time to begin learning basic cooking skills and how to prepare balanced meals that will carry over into adulthood.  Kids are also more likely to eat nutritious foods such as vegetables and whole grains when they are involved in the cooking process. Depending on age, simple tasks could include stirring a sauce, rinsing fruits and vegetables, kneading dough, scooping out baked potatoes from their skins, squeezing lemons and for older children chopping up ingredients with adult supervision. You can also pre-chop ingredients and have kids mix them together to form a dish, like a salad with pre-chopped tomatoes, cucumber and shredded carrots. Don’t forget to involve family members in all steps of making a meal…from setting the table to cleaning up. This is a great opportunity to promote healthy and helpful habits.

3. Enjoy! Once the meal is plated and everyone is at the table, use this time to reconnect with one another and enjoy being together as a family. It is easy to get caught up focusing on endless “to-do” lists and possibly stressors from the work day instead of focusing on the present. It is also easy to get side-tracked with electronic devises (i.e. smart phones, iPad, television etc.) that detract from communication and family time. Try to let family dinners be just that…time to eat together as a family! Put the electronic devices away, set aside the “to-do” list and be present with loved ones and the nutritious meal on the table. Keep interactions positive and try to avoid excessive disciplining at the table. Ask one-another about their day and involve everyone in conversation.

It’s time to make family dinners once again an important tradition. Ask yourself when the last time you had a family dinner was. If it’s been a while, there is no better time than the present to get stared!