You won’t be surprised to learn that dinner time is one of the most stressful times of the day for today’s parents. Finding healthy ways to meet everyone’s mealtime needs while juggling busy schedules, work commitments and picky eaters is enough to drive anyone insane. My own perspective as a full-time working mom nourishing young children changed dramatically when I became committed to eating for my health and for theirs… and crossed my fingers that my kids would just fall in step. And for the most part, they did. But it took some creativity and compromise on everyone’s parts as well as a deeper commitment to creating supportive mealtimes. And it has also included many mistakes, many pivots, an unwavering trust in the process… and a quiet letting go of the outcome.
The Importance of Mealtimes
The most important thing to remember about mealtimes is that they are not just fuel points where we stop on the side of life’s road to ingest macro and micro-nutrients. Mealtimes are where we develop a relationship with food that we take well into adulthood. Mealtimes are where we come together to engage in what is meant to be a pleasant, shared ritual. Many people I work with today retain vivid, unhappy memories of childhood mealtimes that have clouded how they think about food. We might hate vegetables because we were made to eat them or feel tension at dinner because that’s when mom and dad fought. Some of us have memories of feeling alone at meals, maybe in front of the TV.
That is why the coming together is almost more important than what is on our plates. Studies show that eating home-cooked meals together helps kids do better in school, manage their weight, avoid drugs and alcohol and are more connected with their parents.
In order to develop healthier eating experiences for your family that nourish their physical as well as emotional needs… the key is to simplify. Here are three ways to simplify family mealtimes and bring more joy to your family table.
1. Focus around foods that most everyone can eat at a time most can join.
If you have a family with numerous food sensitivities and/or preferences, plan to cook around something that everyone can eat. For example, if you have a vegetarian in the family and another who doesn’t like nuts, soy and dairy... try these black bean burgers with a side of pickles. It is important that kids feel confident at the dinner table that there will be at least one food they enjoy. New foods are more welcome when an old favorite is there alongside. If that means, some pasta at every meal, then so be it.
And if Suzie has soccer at 5… can you push the family dinner time from 6 to 7 that night? The majority of American families report they are eating together less and less. Making everyone feel included in the family meal is an important part of kids engaging in dinner time and eases the burden on the chef to make two or more meals or juggle serving times. In addition, eating alone or different foods from everyone else can be alienating,
2. Create family-style assembly-line meals.
Think taco bars, salad stations and omelet plates. Create the main event and then allow family members to add their own fixins’ to be the artist of their own dinner. Kids love having control over what goes on their plates and adults like being able to add more complicated flavorings. For example, try these sheet pan chicken fajitas. Place family-style dishes of each item item out separately and then put out plain yogurt, cheese, cilantro, limes, spicy seasoning, avocado and baby spinach. Everyone can make their own plate and be happy with their own creations.
3. Plan, Plan, Plan.
Meal planning ahead of time saves time, money, stress and enables healthier eating. With planning comes more home-based cooking and less takeout. Consider using a family organization app like Cozi or Noom to empower your family meal planning. As hokey as it sounds, Taco Tuesday can help family members know what to expect and simplify the family meal planning. Maybe your plan includes Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Stir-fry Wednesday, Breakfast for Dinner Thursday and Grill it up Friday! With older children, perhaps you shift meal planning responsibility for one night to them so that each child begins to learn what goes into planning and gets to assert their tastes and preferences.