While the thought of family dinners can be comforting and nostalgic, sometimes the thought of putting one on the table every night can feel overwhelming and stressful.

Understanding the benefits of gathering around the table for a meal, while breaking it down into smaller steps, can help you make this new family tradition manageable and more enjoyable.

The importance of the family meal

Sitting down at a table to eat a meal has a great impact on healthy eating, weight loss, and weight management – not to mention increased family bonding.

Research shows that kids who participate in family meals have better eating habits, get better grades, have positive relationships with their parents, and have greater self-esteem Not to mention that eating together as a family is a great way to decompress and catch up on everyone’s day. When eating with younger children, family meals provide an opportunity for role modeling healthy behaviors, such as eating new foods, portion control, and table manners.

Start with a goal

Maybe you are currently eating out more than you’re eating in. Setting a SMART goal can get you started on a new path of more meals at home.

Your SMART goal may be, “We will eat dinner at home four nights a week by 7 p.m. for the next two weeks starting on Monday.” What makes this a SMART goal is that it is very specific.

Research shows the more specific you are about your goal, the more likely you are to be successful. Note that your goal is not every night; four nights a week is more reasonable and leaves room for a dinner out, or maybe an unexpected take out meal. Look at your upcoming week noting everyone’s schedule, then plan which four nights you will be home for dinner and build these specific nights into your SMART goal.

If this goal seems too daunting at first, try using less convenience foods or not eating in front of the TV four nights a week as your start to a SMART goal.

Involve everyone

While it may be customary in your family to have one person, and maybe always the same person, make the meals, now is a great time to spread the wealth and the labor.

Older children can chop the vegetables and younger ones can mix the pre-cut vegetables into a salad or set the table. Children can also help with meal planning. If you have “selective eaters” in your household, including them in the meal planning can help get them on board with trying new foods, or at least, not having to make them a separate meal night after night.

To get started, take a look at the week ahead and note which evenings people will be home for dinner, and start planning your menus! Try allowing each family member to choose what’s for dinner at least once per week. Having some say gives everyone at least one meal they know they will love.

Meal planning

Now, on to meal planning.

Meal planning sounds like a lot of work, but in the long run it will mean less energy spent deciding on what to eat, less food waste, and ultimately, healthier eating. Start with the healthy plate model. Twenty-five percent of your plate should be protein, 25 percent of it should be grains (or starchy vegetables, such as potato or corn), and the remaining 50 percent should be vegetables and/or fruit.

For example, 1/4 of your plate could be a 4-ounce chicken breast, another 1/4 of your plate could be rice (note this is roughly 1/2 cup cooked), and the remaining 1/2 of your plate could be salad, or a mixture of salad and a vegetable, or vegetable and fruit, or all vegetables.

Keep this model in mind when planning your dinner and plug in the appropriate foods into each part of your plate. Choose from a list of proteins such as chicken, beef, fish, tofu, etc. Grains could be pasta, rice, potato, one slice of bread, and the possible veggies are endless. Also, try to have some less perishable items on hand for easy meals at the last minute, such as canned beans, eggs, cheese (parmesan, cheddar or feta), canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, pasta, rice or frozen portions from large batch cooking.

Have fun!

Okay, so you’ve started meal planning and you’ve been enjoying your family meals at home four nights a week, but the novelty has worn off and you’re always eating the same meals. Have your teenagers find new recipes to try on websites like www.eatingwell.com and www.healthyaperture.com, or have younger children come up with theme nights like “taco night.” Try these new recipes on a Saturday or Sunday night when life might be less hectic, and then rotate these new found gems into your weekly meal plans. In a couple of months, you will have a whole new assortment of meals to eat together.

Karen Dean, CHWC, DTR, is a certified health and wellness coach with Employee Wellness at the University of Vermont Medical Center. 

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