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Fast and healthful family meals

March 11, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE

Family meals can lead to better physical and mental health for your children. Mental health? Yes. Meals are not just a time for nourishment, but also for strengthening family ties and keeping track of your children's lives.

Research indicates that regular family meals are good for children. Family meals decrease the risk of unhealthy weight-control practices and decreased substance abuse.

Of course, good meals are closely connected to good nutrition. Eating family dinners together most or all days of the week has been associated with children eating more healthfully, particularly in the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Start with the basics



You can keep meals simple yet nutritious and interesting by sticking to nutrition basics. Offer your children a variety of great tasting foods from the major food groups.

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Keep meals simple. Foods that keep your family healthy can be quick to fix. Unless it's a special occasion, spend time together, not on making time-consuming meals.

Cook when you have more time. Make soups, stews or casseroles on weekends, then freeze them to use during the next week. Making meat sauce for spaghetti? Make extra and use it for topping a baked potato tomorrow.

Do some food-prep tasks ahead of time. Wash and trim vegetables, make fruit salad, cook noodles for pasta salad or cook lean, ground meat for tacos.

Buy partially prepared foods. Try grated cheese, cut-up chicken and bags of prewashed, mixed salad greens to save time. These foods often cost more, so check the price.

Stock your kitchen. Get foods that you can make and serve in a hurry, such as:

Canned fruit
Whole-grain bread
Cheese
Canned or frozen vegetables and beans
Dry pasta
Frozen meals
Canned meat, poultry and fish
Rice
Canned soups or stew
Low fat yogurt

Save time in your kitchen by cooking once for everyone. Does your spouse like spicy, complicated dishes, but child likes unmixed vegetables, meat, rice or noodles? If so, set some plain foods aside before you add other ingredients. You won't need to take time to prepare different dishes for different family members.

Cook a fast way. Broil, stir-fry or microwave when you can. Roasting and baking take longer.

Make no-cook meals, such as salads with canned tuna, chicken, or beans; cold sandwiches; or raw vegetables and yogurt dip.

Involve your children. Ask your children to set the table, pour milk or do other simple tasks. In time, your children will develop kitchen skills and more confidence.

And about mental health ...

No matter how simple your meal, sit down and enjoy it with your family. Make mealtime a pleasant experience, not a time for discipline or arguing about problems at school or work.

Time spent sharing a family meal can help your children form positive attitudes about food and eating, and create fond family memories that will last a lifetime.

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

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