Every month has a theme or message it honors. September is National Family Meals Month, well suited to a month that is characterized by “regrouping” that family’s experience as they gear up for another school year and the many factors associated with it that make quality meal time challenging.
I know firsthand about this challenge–not just because I’m a mom of two children who have a combined 4 dance classes, 3 baseball practices and games, boy scouts, religious school and other commitments to manage Monday-Friday between 5pm and 7pm, but because I am also the dietitian that families come to so that I can fix their family dinner dilemmas and make their struggle, well, less of a struggle. There are five pieces of advice that I always share.
Deconstruct your meals.
Sometimes a meal doesn’t present like one. I discussed this in my recent post on Deconstructed Meals. The primary purpose of a deconstructed meal is to provide an assortment of healthful ingredients that can work together to create a satiating salad, balanced whole grain bowl, warm wrap or even just a “snacky meal” as my son likes to say. This meal not only gets the job done, but makes good use of fresh leftovers and pantry items that you likely have on hand. While the meal may be deconstructed, the family time isn’t, as a meal like this brings everyone to the table quickly and fits well with a busy night.
Family time is not always meal time.
I get it…some nights even a deconstructed meal can’t bring everyone to the table for a meal at the same time. For example, it may be ideal for a school age child to eat their meal right after school because they may be very hungry at this time. If they don’t, they will likely eat a snack that is larger than ideal, which has great potential to lead to overeating and possibly weight gain. Waiting until the family is ready for dinner around 6:30 is not okay for this child. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t still sit with the family and enjoy a snack at that time (and save leftovers for the next day after school!). So it may not be that everyone is eating dinner, but the opportunity for family time exists just the same.
Plan. Shop. Prepare.
Like the blueprint to an ideal week, the approach to planning, shopping and preparing food is essential for a successful family meal. Without it, your family may end up sitting around a fast food table rather than your own, and likely consuming unhealthy foods. Again, the key here is to consider what works for your family, not overcomplicate it, keep healthful foods top of mind, and make the best choices you can. I highly recommend taking advantage of healthful convenience items at the supermarket to make this process easier and applying the “half-scratch” approach to meal prep that we highlighted in our webinar on healthier home cooking.
Learn to value late night and early morning.
A conversation on planning, shopping, and preparing would be incomplete without addressing the value of early morning and late night. Yes, these are two critical times of day when you might rather be sleeping, but I assure you that when you are ruling family dinner and winning at this challenging part of the day, you’ll be so energized that you’ll forget you started the slow cooker before the sun rose that morning (okay…that may be an exaggeration but you get it). Dice vegetables, marinate meat, measure ingredients at night, then use the morning to start the slow cooker, wash your prep dishes, and engage in other time saving measures to make your evening easier.
Make the weekends special.
All this strategizing during the week leads to what I see as the most important piece of advice for helping young people grow up with a true appreciation for food and family. The weekend. Carve out time to look for new recipes, prepare fresh and complicated dishes, and slow down to truly enjoy a long meal together where the focus isn’t on the homework that needs to get done or other distractions, but rather on great conversation and fabulous food. While I realize that we may wish every dinner can be like this, the reality is that it simply can’t. The good news? Saving your culinary creativity for the weekend makes it something to look forward to and saves you money because who needs a restaurant when the best meal in town is in your own kitchen?!