Making Family Meals Happen (Even When Schedules Are Busy)

CC by 2.0 Nick Lee

CC by 2.0 Nick Lee

Today’s families are busy, busy, busy. Between full-time work, school and extracurricular activities for the kids, volunteer opportunities, errands, and everything else on your plate, it can be difficult to get the whole family sitting around the dinner table each evening. While this was once the norm in American families, simple logistics have made a traditional family dinner less frequent than it once was. If you’re sick of eating on the fly and missing this time of unwinding with your family over the evening, here are some tips on getting everyone together for family dinner more often.

Be Flexible With Timing

You might prefer to eat at 6:00 on the dot, but if you or your spouse works until 5:30 or if the kids are busy with sports until you pick them up at 6:00, this is nearly impossible. If you have young children, it’s easy to feel the crunch and try to get them fed early so they can have their baths and get to bed at a decent time.

During the week, it might not be feasible for everyone to meet at the same time to enjoy a meal. Consider ways you can still come together. Perhaps younger children can be fed dinner as soon as you get in from work, but can still join you and your partner (as well as any teens in the family) while you eat your dinner at the table shortly before the younger ones go to bed. The little ones can eat fruit or cheese and crackers, which allows them to have their bedtime snack while engaging in conversation and relaxation with the rest of the family.

If you have only adults and teens in your home, consider pretending you are in Rome and eating your dinner later in the evening. It might not be the best strategy if you are on a diet, if you are prone to heartburn, or if you need to watch your blood sugar in the evening, but if your stomach and health are up for it, try eating at 8:00 pm or so, just a couple of hours before bedtime. This gives everyone a chance to finish up homework and get their activities done before dinner.

Try Family Breakfast

Breakfast might be a hurried affair in your house, but if you’re unable to meet to eat dinner, perhaps getting up just 15 minutes earlier will allow everyone to find a common time to enjoy their cereal, smoothies or scrambled eggs together at the table. This will not be a drawn-out affair in most families, but it can be nice to sit down together for a few minutes to drink coffee and discuss your plans for the day. Keep it simple: Whatever people are normally grabbing for breakfast is perfectly fine; there’s no rule that says you must all be eating the same thing or that the meal enjoyed together must be prepared by one person.

Make Eating Together on the Weekends a Priority

If you can’t get everyone together for dinner during the week, all hope is not lost. Make it a priority to enjoy at least one leisurely meal together on the weekends. It might be Saturday lunch or Sunday breakfast, but strongly encourage everyone to be at the table at the appointed time. You don’t necessarily have to meet at the same time every weekend; decide during the week what time works best for everyone, and then don’t allow anyone to make non-emergency plans during that time.

Sitting around the table with your family might seem like a luxury that you don’t have time for, but making room in your schedule to do this at least weekly can improve family relationships, help you connect with your family members, and give your children treasured memories and traditions to look back on and continue once they have their own families. Make it a priority to set the expectation for your other family members, and chances are good that they will appreciate it.

Healthy Snacks for the Whole Family

CC by 2.0 John Schilling

CC by 2.0 John Schilling

By the time you get in from work and the kids are home from school and afternoon activities, it’s likely that you are all starving and maybe a bit cranky. Even on weekends, there are times when everyone needs a snack on relatively short notice and without a lot of time for prep or a lengthy thought process. While it might seem easiest to grab a bag of chips or to dole out cookies to keep the hunger pangs at bay, there are healthier options that are just as simple. Here are a few ideas for healthy snacks that the whole family can enjoy.

Popcorn

Most people like popcorn, and with a microwave, you can pop up a bag in under two minutes. Popping it on the stove or in an air-popper takes a bit longer, but is almost as convenient. Doing it yourself also means that you control what is going into the snack; use sunflower or canola oil and just a sprinkling of salt for flavor.

If you do decide to go the microwave route, you’re going to want to check for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list, as this is a sign that the product contains heart-unhealthy trans fats. Not up for reading labels? No problem. Prevention has put out a list of five brands to look for that are both healthy and delicious.

One more caveat: Don’t serve popcorn to kids under four, because it’s a choking hazard.

Fruit

It seems like a no-brainer to give the kids a piece of fruit when they come in hungry, but this is often met by complaints. One way to stave off the inevitable “but mo-oooom!” and the pleas for the Oreos in the cabinet is to cut up the fruit ahead of time. There are a few ways you can do this to prevent it from looking unappetizing.

First, choose fruits that hold well when cut. Strawberries and melon will stay fresh for a full day after being cut if they’re stored in the fridge. Mix these with smaller whole berries (raspberries, blackberries and blueberries) for an antioxidant-filled snack that will tide over hungry tummies until mealtime. This works great for the adults in your house, too, as a bowl of washed berries or cubed melon is often easier to eat and more attractive than a whole orange or apple, and this might keep you out of the chip bowl.

Second, try using a rubber band to hold apple slices together. Slice up the apple, then put it back together, holding it together with a rubber band (you can also use plastic wrap or foil). This will prevent the cut edges from getting brown as it sits in the fridge all day.

Finally, you can use lemon juice to keep cut fruits from browning. Just squeeze 1/4 lemon over the fruit and mix well to spread it around.

You can also use canned fruit that’s packaged in fruit juice without extra sugar added, or even frozen fruit if your kids like that.

Dips

Setting out a few healthy dips will keep your family members coming back for more. Try setting out baby carrots and a dip made from a cup of sour cream, a box of frozen spinach (thawed and drained), and half a package of onion soup mix. Another option is to have a bowl of yogurt accompanying whole strawberries or apple slices.

If you want to serve something other than fruits and veggies, consider whole-grain crackers, low-salt pretzels or cubes of pumpernickel or rye bread. These can be used with hummus (homemade or purchased) or any other savory dip.

The key to getting your family to eat more healthy snacks is to have them ready and prepared. If you can take a few minutes before bed or first thing in the morning to get something ready, there will be a healthful option just waiting for hungry hands and mouths.