Family meals are especially important for kids.
Kids who eat with their families have healthier eating habits, tend to be at a healthier weight and do better in school.
And there's more.
Eating together solidifies family bonding and improves young children's verbal skills.
And teens and tweens who eat three or more family meals per week exhibit less depression, substance abuse, disordered eating and other risky behaviors.
In honor of Kids Eat Right Month, registered dietitian nutritionist, Marisa Moore, offers tips for fitting the family meal into your busy schedule.
Transcription:Melanie Cole (Host):
Family meals are especially important for kids. Research shows that kids who eat with their families have healthier eating habits, tend to be at a healthier weight, do better in school, and are closer with their families. My guest today is Marisa Moore. She's a registered dietitian nutritionist who owns a nutrition- consulting practice that provides services including writing recipe development, nutrition analysis, and more. Welcome to the show, Marisa. Tell us a little bit about why family meals are so important for families.Marisa Moore (Guest):
Hi! Thanks so much for having me on. You said it best. I think family meals are so important because they really do benefit everyone in the family, especially the children. There’s some really strong evidence to show that children who have meals with their families on a regular basis, they tend to have a better vocabulary. They end up eating better in general—more fruits and vegetables, more calcium, more fiber. There’s some interesting research to even show that teenagers in particular who spend more time with their family having dinner, they are less likely to use drugs, alcohol, or smoke.Melanie
: Wow! That’s quite a statement, and some great statistics and really great reasons to have family meals together. People get busy though, Marisa, and they say, “Okay, I’m just going to throw something in the microwave, give it to the kids, and finish the laundry.” There are so many things that keep us busy. How do we fit those family meals into our schedule?Marisa
: We are all very busy. But for the reasons I just mentioned, it’s really important to try to squeeze in a family meal now and then. The first thing that I like to recommend to people is to, one, try not to overschedule yourself. We all want to do so many different things, but find out what your kids are most passionate about instead of doing too many things after school, and maybe you will free up a little bit of time. One of the other things is just unplugging a little bit during the afternoon, and that is turning off the TV, maybe telling the kids they can’t use the phone for a little bit, and just allowing everybody some time to kind of connect with one another so that you might free up a little time that you didn’t think was there. Now, when it comes to actually put the meal on the table, I think preparation is probably the most important thing that you could do. If you have kids who are computer savvy, you can let them find recipes for you, and they can also help with the preparation. They can help with clean up, they can help with setting the table. But if they’re old enough, they can even start to cut up vegetables and make it so much easier for you to get the meal on the table.Melanie
: Well, it’s great to serve salads, and they’re one of the things that are kind of a pain to prepare. And so, cutting up vegetables, having the kids wash lettuce, do things like that really can help speed that process along, and kids do like to be involved, and I think when they are involved, they’re more invested in the results. So, when we’re looking at those kinds of family meals, you say preparation. Now, during the busy week, maybe we get home from work at 5:00 or 5:30 so we don’t have time to maybe prepare a whole healthy meal. What do you advise for the busy times?Marisa
: Well, I tell people don’t be afraid of shortcuts. That rotisserie chicken in the supermarket will be great using it to make tacos at home or just adding a couple of sides to it. You can use things like that, those little shortcuts: precut vegetables, vegetables that are already washed and prepped for you. You can use those little shortcut frozen vegetables, especially. Those little shortcuts can make a difference in you getting a meal on the table really quickly, also choosing meals that are very quick and easy to prepare. Thirty-minute meals are very popular, and there are lots of them out there. One of my most favorite and probably the easiest thing to do is to take fish that you’ve unthawed just overnight, add either some barbecue sauce or a homemade marinade, and broil it. You put it in the oven and you broil it for just 10 to 15 minutes, and you have your protein already ready to go. The other one is to maybe do foil packets, where you put your protein in there with some vegetables, set it then forget it, come back, and you have packets ready to go that are also very easy to clean up. Because if you’re like me, cooking is fun but the cleanup is not so much fun, so the idea is to try to think of things that you can maybe put on the table really quickly but also clean up. Now, the other thing that I like to make sure that families know that they can do is try to cook once and eat twice. What I mean by that is maybe on Sunday have a little extra time and you decide to make a pot roast or something like that. Go ahead and put some extra meat in the slow cooker however you’re going to make it and then use the extra for tacos later in the week, or you can add it to soup or stew if you’re doing a chicken dish. Think about ways that you can kind of use those things over during the week when you won’t have as much time.Melanie
: That’s great advice, and I also love that you’re suggesting that everybody get involved and that everybody help in the choosing of recipe, using their online abilities to find a recipe and turning it into even a little competition if you take the kids to the produce department with you and say, “Okay, pick a vegetable that you’ve never tried, and let’s look up recipes and see who comes up with the most interesting-looking recipes.” Now, when we talk about family meals, let’s talk a little bit, Marisa, about what you do with the family meals. Because I’ve seen all too many families sitting there at a meal with the kids looking down at their cellphones, even the parents doing it as well, texting and being busy doing other things. Give us your best advice about the family meal itself.Marisa
: That’s an excellent point. You have to take a little time to unplug to get all those benefits. It’s a great time for you to sit with the family and figure out what happened during their day. It’s a good time to sort of bond—and you don’t have to use that word, of course. But, it’s a good time to find out what happened in your child’s day and share with them what happened with yours, and it’s just a great time to connect with the family. So maybe do a no-technology rule at the table because often, whenever we are distracted by TV or cellphones, we end up maybe eating too much or we maybe eat too fast, and we really miss out on those benefits of having a family meal. There are ways to keep the family engaged at the table too. Like I have an idea I’m doing some maybe a theme night. You could do taco Tuesdays or Friday night pizza. It’s a great way to get the kids involved and get them engaged and they’ll be excited about what’s going to happen. If you have a family vacation that’s coming up, maybe come up with some recipes that are kind of like the area you’re going to. Let’s say you’re going to the Grand Canyon, then maybe you come up for the first four weeks leading up to vacation, you come up with recipes that have sort of a Southwestern twist. That gives your kids an opportunity to sort of research the area and get used to what the food might be there. But then, it also gives them something to kind of talk about over the table. So if you’re struggling for ideas, think about themes, think about what’s going on in your kids’ life, and figure out a way to connect food with whatever is going on in your family’s life.Melanie
: I love that idea. And really, making theme nights, you can make it fun for the kids, even decorate and put some music on. Having a little music in the background of a meal is always preferable to using your telephones or having the television on. Give us a few of your favorite healthy meals for families. We only have a couple of minutes left, but give us a few of your favorites.Marisa
: Probably my favorite thing to do is stir-fry, because with stir-fry, it’s a one-pot meal. Yes, it might take a little bit of prep, but you can always use frozen vegetables. But it gives you an opportunity to have everything in one place. You choose your protein, and then you can try out a bunch of different vegetables, see which ones you like a little more than others. You could try out different sauces, and they don’t always have to be Asian theme. You could certainly do a stir-fry that’s maybe Indian or they could be Southwestern or Latin fusion. You can try lots of different things. Stir-fries are probably my very favorite because it puts everything together. It gives you an opportunity to get plenty of fruits and vegetables in. Then, the one that I mentioned a little bit earlier is really my go-to sort of healthy dish where you just take some foil packets, put either chicken or fish or your favorite protein along with your favorite vegetables in there, cook it for 20 minutes, and it’s done. That’s the easiest one to use in it. It’s so easy to clean up. That’s probably one of the favorite ones. And then the other one would just be salad. You start with your favorite salad green, add on protein, and that protein can be beans or any other vegetable-based protein, so you could even do nachos. A lot of times we think, “Oh, nachos are not healthy,” but they absolutely can be if you do wholegrain chip, some beans, fresh salsa with tomatoes, maybe corn or your favorite vegetables. Those are ways that you can get some healthy things on the menu or on the table very easily, easy clean up, and everybody’s going to love it.Melanie
: Thank you so much, Marisa Moore. Great ideas for family dinners. The research is there. It shows that people who eat family dinners together enjoy each other’s company, do better in school, just really all around healthier eaters. This is Melanie Cole and you’re listening to Eat Right Radio. For more information, you can go to eatright.org. That’s eatright.org. Thanks so much for listening.