When was the last time your whole family ate dinner together?
If you're like many American families, it's not as often as you might wish. Work schedules, long commutes and after-school activities are just a few of the time demands that prevent families from gathering at the table.
But there are good reasons to make time for family meals. Your family can catch up, talk over important issues and enjoy each other's company. And eating together may offer benefits beyond family bonding.
For instance, research shows that teens who frequently dine with their families eat more fruit, vegetables and key nutrients such as fiber, calcium, iron and several vitamins. They also drink fewer soft drinks and eat less saturated fat.
And there's more good news. These teens tend to carry their healthy eating habits into young adulthood, suggesting that the power of the family meal may extend well past the time the last dish is dried and put away.
Tips to Rally the Troops 'Round the Table
Schedule it, but not in stone. When possible, pick a regular night (or nights) and make sure the date is on everyone's schedule. Be flexible enough to change the date or to proceed as planned if someone unexpectedly can't make it.
Enlist everyone's help. Foster family team spirit by assigning everyone a task to help prepare the meal. Even little kids can do simple things like setting the table, washing fruits and vegetables or tearing up lettuce for a salad.
Trim meal prep time with these tips:
Keep a file of your family's favorite quick-and-easy recipes to help you plan the week's family meals. Make sure the ingredients are on your shopping list or stocked in your kitchen.
Speed prep time by using the supermarket salad bar to gather chopped ingredients for recipes as well as a big vegetable salad to go on the side and fruit salad for dessert. Or check the produce aisle for bagged salad kits and recipe-ready bags of trimmed and chopped veggies.
If you don't have time to make a recipe from scratch, swing by the supermarket prepared foods section for an entrée and vegetable side dish.
Pick up two rotisserie chickens or cooked pot roasts—one for tonight's family dinner and the other to use in tacos, soup, stew or hash on another night. Freeze some to make the next family meal come together that much faster.
Clear the lines of communication. During the meal, turn off the TV and let the answering machine pick up phone messages. Make sure everyone has a chance to talk or share something about their day. To get the conversation rolling, ask the kids to create construction paper "place cards" with each family member's name and a "surprise" question for them to answer. Encourage kids to think up "open-ended" questions like, "What was the most interesting thing you learned in school today?" "What was the funniest thing that happened to you this week?" or "What was your favorite birthday and why?"
Think beyond dinner. The family meal doesn't have to mean dinner. Enjoy a bedtime snack when everyone's home for the night. Or, if weekends are more leisurely, eat breakfast, brunch or lunch together.