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Eating Dinner, Family Style

These days, getting the whole family around the table at the same time can require the scheduling prowess of an air traffic controller. With work, meetings, and after-school activities, sitting down to a family dinner can seem impossible. But it's not -- and it's definitely worth the effort, because breaking bread together can benefit the entire family. Here's how:

  • According to researchers at Syracuse University, family routines such as eating dinner together nightly are associated with happier marriages, improved children's health, and stronger family ties.
  • Family meals are the perfect time to teach kids good manners and to model appropriate table etiquette. Sharing pleasant conversation around the dinner table can also help improve a child's social skills.
  • Dining together makes for healthier eaters. Kids who regularly eat with their families tend to have healthier eating patterns. They consume more fruits and vegetables and fewer fried foods, sodas, and saturated fat than kids who don't share family meals, says the American Dietetic Association.

Daddy Does Dinner: Family Meals
Daddy Does Dinner: Family Meals

Eating on the run may seem more practical given our hectic lives, but the average family prepares and eats dinner at home five nights a week -- that's five opportunities to enjoy each other's company. Still think you can't carve out the time? Try these strategies:

  1. Turn off the TV and the computer. Screen time can really eat into family time, if you let it. Cut out some TV watching or Web surfing and you'll find "extra" time for family meals. "Most mealtimes only last about 20 minutes," says Barbara Fiese, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at Syracuse University. "Three or four shared family meals a week add up to about one hour -- considerably less time than a weekly televised sports event or movie."
  2. Rely on the answering machine. Whether they're from telemarketers or well-meaning friends, telephone calls can disrupt the flow of a family meal. Instead of jumping up from the table every time the phone rings, let the answering machine pick up, and then return the calls at a time that's convenient for you.
  3. Plan meals ahead of time. Instead of scrambling as dinnertime approaches, take a few minutes on Sundays to decide what you'll serve for dinner each night of the week. And any food prep you can do in advance will help make dinner go more smoothly.
  4. Slow down for your kids. Children tend to eat more slowly than adults, so plan on enough time for kids to finish their meals. Instead of rushing through your meal, take a few extra minutes to relax before cleaning up.
  5. Promote pleasant conversation. Keep conversation around the table light and positive. Need a way to get the conversation flowing? Try going around the table and having each family member share something about his day or a funny joke.

If the daunting task of getting a healthy meal that everyone will eat on the table is holding you back, try these time-saving tips:

  • Think prepackaged. Cut prep time by using prepackaged items like bag salads, jar sauces, refrigerated rolls, and canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Do double duty. Making two batches of stew or lasagna doesn't require much more time than making one. Double your recipe and freeze the extra food for a quick meal another night.
  • Cut up lots of veggies at once. While you have the knife and cutting board out, slice up all the vegetables you have. Store them in the refrigerator until you need them. It's easy to whip up a healthy stir-fry in no time if the vegetables are already cut up.
  • Stock up on nonperishables. Avoid last-minute trips to the grocery store by keeping often-used nonperishables such as rice, pasta, and frozen vegetables on hand.
  • Get the kids involved. Depending on their age, children can help wash vegetables, set the table, or prepare simple dishes like salads.
  • Build in some easy nights. Instead of trying to put a complete dinner like meat and potatoes on the table every night, shake things up with "breakfast night," when you serve easy-to-make a.m. favorites, or soup-and-sandwich night.
  • Use ingredients more than one way. Have leftovers from Monday's roasted chicken? Throw some over a garden salad for Tuesday's dinner. Finding ways to turn one night's leftovers into another night's meal saves time and money.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.