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Enjoy more mealtimes with family

January 17, 2007|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Family-style meals are about much more than people eating at the same time. According to an article in the April 2006 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "The family meal is a potential public health measure for improving dietary quality, reducing overweight, and improving education and social outcomes."

Studies show that family meals can have a positive effect on nutrition. Eating more family meals is associated with the same smart food choices that promote a healthy weight: Higher intake of fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods, as well as lower soft drink intake. Teens who eat more family meals have higher intakes of key nutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, E, B6 and folate, as well as fiber.

Family meals are about more than eating healthy food together. They increase intergenerational communication and a sense of family unity, which affects many aspects of a young person's life.

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Making a commitment to regular family meals, with a variety of nutrient-rich foods served in a pleasant atmosphere, is one of the simplest ways to enhance your family's health and happiness.

Plan one more family mealtime in every week.

Take a quick inventory of how many times you usually eat together now. Then plan to add just one more family mealtime per week. If dinnertime is too hectic, add a leisurely weekend breakfast or lunch. After a month or two of this new pattern, you can then add another family meal each week - until, before you know it, you are enjoying eating together at least five times every week. Make family meals a top priority by writing them into everyone's calendar, PDA or whatever.

Plan tasty menus for family meals together.

If you think that putting a meal together has to be complicated or time-consuming, think again! The best meals are simple, delicious and planned together. Share the responsibility by letting everyone choose a favorite menu for one day. Even small children can pick a main dish (like tacos or pasta), a veggie (green salad or cooked carrots) and fruit for dessert (sliced apples or canned peaches in juice). Plan ahead by creating simple meals and shopping for ingredients on the weekend.

Plan to set a special table for family meals.

Food is just one important part of mealtime. There are many other ways to set the mood for an enjoyable and relaxed time around the table together. A little extra attention to the actual table setting (with very little expense) can add a lot to mealtime atmosphere. Some inexpensive possibilities include: a candle, some colored napkins, or wipe-clean, plastic tablemats for children.

Plan to enjoy conversation at the table.

Many mealtime benefits come from the conversations that families have while eating together. Children learn new words from the adults - and adults are able to share family values with the next generation. Choose topics that are positive and allow everyone to participate. Even toddlers like to offer their opinions on topics like their favorite color or what made them laugh today.

Plan to turn off the TV and telephones.

Treasure the time together by turning off TVs and telephones for the entire mealtime. Loud television noise and multiple phone calls can upset anyone's mealtime routine, making it difficult to eat or carry on a conversation. The solution is simple: Declare mealtime a TV- and phone-free zone (except for emergencies, of course). Turn off the distractions for just 30 minutes. Imagine you are dining at a nice restaurant and play some soothing background music at low volume.

For more on the benefits of family meals, visit the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University - www.casafamilyday.org. For menu ideas, visit www.mypyramid.gov and click on "tips and resources."

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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