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Eating Together: Taking Small Steps for Improved Health

August 2010

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Taking small steps and making simple menu changes can make a huge difference in your family’s health. Increasing the number of meals that your family eats together can improve communication within the family and keep members eating healthier and within the family food budget.

Are you struggling to make a meal plan? Family dinners do not have to take more than 30 minutes to prepare and they are easier than you think. Here are some reasons why eating together as a family is so important:

  • Children learn new skills (preparing simple meals and setting a table), values (the importance of eating balanced meals for good health), and family traditions (holiday dishes and special foods from the family’s cultural background).
  • Families save time and money and meals become a team effort.
  • Children have fewer behavior problems and do better in school according to The Surprising Power of Family Meals, by author Miriam Weinstein.
  • Children and parents get the nutrients they need and everyone participates in creating lifetime memories.
Planning weekly is not difficult. Make menus simple and write down what you will be eating for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. You need a plan so that you can choose recipes, check food on hand and then prepare a shopping list so all foods needed for the upcoming week are available. To cut down on meal preparation time, cook once and get two meals out of it. Cook and freeze larger amounts of food ingredients like ground meat for tacos, spaghetti sauce, meatballs, hamburgers, or other main dishes.

Keep your pantry stocked with staples such as beans, tuna, fruit, pasta, rice, cereals, baking products and frozen vegetables and fruit. Always have low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs and bread available. Staples such as flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda, margarine, oils, dried fruit, nuts and simple herbs and spices need to be available.

Nothing is quicker than cereal for breakfast with some fresh fruit or juice, a sandwich on whole grain bread for lunch with some fresh veggies or fruit and a simple dinner that includes protein, non-starchy veggies (green, yellow or orange) and starchy (potato) or grain (pasta, rice or other whole grain). It can be a cooked meal or might be a sandwich with salad. Hot or cold food gives us excellent nutrition to meet our daily needs.

Perfect family meals include high energy whole grains, high-quality, lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, pork, lamb, veal, ham, or other animal sources. Good protein sources that are plant based include: tofu, beans, soybean milk, soy cheese and soy based burgers. All meals should include fruit and vegetables. Make sure ½ of your plate is packed with produce each meal and add a refreshing glass of cold water or your beverage of choice.

Remember adults and youth need plenty of calcium and vitamin D so dairy products are important in the diet. Take those small steps to prepare meals at home which can help the family eat more whole foods which is healthier and more cost effective.