Monthly Health Message:

The Challenge of Making Family Meals Happen

December 2011

Karen Ensle EdD, RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

It can be a big challenge to find the time to plan, prepare, and share family meals each evening and then be relaxed enough to enjoy the meal and your family. Try these three steps to schedule family meals and make them enjoyable for everyone.

1. Plan
Planning ahead is necessary so look over the calendar to choose a time when everyone can be there. Figure out which obstacles are getting in the way of more family meals -- busy schedules, no supplies in the house, no time to cook, etc. Ask for your family's help and ideas on how these roadblocks can be removed. For instance, figure out a way to get groceries purchased by ordering online or having another family member besides the cook do the shopping. If time to cook is the problem, try using a slow cooker or doing some prep work on weekends or even completely preparing a dish ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.

2. Prepare
Once you have all your supplies on hand, have your children help in the preparation. Recruiting younger kids may take extra work, but it's often worth it. Simple tasks such as putting plates on the table, tossing the salad, pouring a beverage, folding the napkins, or being a "taster" are appropriate jobs for preschoolers and school-age kids. Older kids may be able to pitch in even more, such as getting ingredients together, washing produce, mixing and stirring, and serving. If you have teens around, consider assigning them a night to cook, with you as the helper.

Parents need to set a good example by saying please and thanks to their kids for their help. Being upbeat and pleasant as you prepare the meal will rub off on your kids. Helping your family enjoy cooking and eating together allows everyone to work together to enjoy the meal for better health.

3. Enjoy
Many parents bring work home from their job. Time needs to be set aside to enjoy family time together. Even if you're thinking of all you must accomplish after dinner's done (doing dishes, making lunches, etc.), try not to focus on that during dinner. Make your time at the table pleasant and allow everyone to decompress from the day and enjoy being together as a family. Kids look forward to discussing their day with their parents and these interactions are critical for healthy emotional and physical well-being.

Create a moment of calm before the meal begins, so the cook can shift gears. It also presents a chance to say grace, thank the cook, wish everyone a good meal, or raise a glass of milk or water to toast and appreciate each other. Make your kids feel loved, connected and part of the family.

Here are a few conversation starters to get everyone involved:

  1. If you could have any food for dinner tomorrow night, what would it be?
  2. Who can guess how many potatoes I used to make that bowl of mashed potatoes?
  3. What's the most delicious food on the table?
  4. If you opened a restaurant, what kind would it be?
  5. Who's the best cook you know?
Hopefully it is you!


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences