Table Topics: find time for family meals even on busy weeknights

Life can be hectic, especially for parents. Between sports practices, music lessons and homework, the kitchen can seem like a revolving door and family meals a distant memory. But taking the time to sit down and eat dinner with your children is not only good for your whole family’s health, it’s also beneficial to your children’s spirit and brain development.

One Harvard study showed that dinner conversation is apt to boost children’s vocabulary more than a parent reading to them. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showed that teens who have frequent family dinners (5 or more times a week) are more likely to work hard at school, have positive relationships with their peers and develop healthier eating habits. Mealtimes together are also a good venue to teach children social skills and manners, not to mention an opportunity to catch up on the day’s events.

How do I find the time?

With a little planning, families can eat healthy meals together even on the busiest of weeknights. If you prepare a menu on the weekend and make sure to have all the ingredients on hand, you can prep meals ahead of time so they’re ready to throw in the oven to bake—or simply reheat—as soon as you get home. Check the Internet for a variety of tasty make-ahead recipes. Good options are casseroles, stews, soups and savoury pies. Even peeling and chopping vegetables ahead of time will make it easier to throw together a nutritious salad as you battle the clock. Another time saver is to double recipes so you can use the leftovers as a base for a new recipe the following night.

With a little prep the night before or in the morning, a slowcooker is also a great kitchen investment for satisfying meals that will be ready and waiting when you come through the door. And keep in mind that slowcookers aren’t just for soups and stews either—recipes range from breakfast foods all the way to delicious desserts.

If your children are involved with extracurricular activities during the week, be flexible around dinner times and plan to eat your meals when most of the family is there—even if it’s early or a little later than you’d prefer. You can also take your meals “to-go” and eat together at the pool, gym, arena or park as an option too.

Get some help

Be sure to involve your children in the meal preparation. Kids who help pick the menus are often more likely to enjoy eating them. For ideas, go to Eat Right Ontario (www.eatrightontario.ca) for a list of award-winning kid-friendly recipes. Or check Canada’s Food Guide (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/choose-choix/advice-conseil/child-enfant-eng.php) for fast and easy meal ideas for children.

If menu planning just seems too daunting, consider trying one of the meal preparation services available in many provinces. These companies provide the kitchen, utensils and all the ingredients for you to assemble a variety of meals to serve your family. You go in at your convenience and prepare several weeks worth of uncooked meals in just an hour or two that you can then store in your freezer until you need them. Best of all you’re not left with the kitchen mess or dishes either.

“It’s a lot more economical than takeout and these meals have a lot less sodium than what you’ll find in many restaurant foods,” says Joni Lien, founder of Supperworks, a meal preparation company with 14 franchises across Ontario. Lien says she and her team do all the grocery shopping and recipe testing beforehand to ensure meals are tasty as well as nutritious. “Some of our customers love cooking while others are less comfortable in the kitchen,” she says. “Regardless, it’s fun and social and saves you from buying ingredients you’ll only use a teaspoon of.”

Take advantage of some nutritious shortcuts at your grocery store as well. For example, a roasted chicken is a great choice coupled with a salad and sweet potatoes. Similarly, a store-bought whole-wheat cheese pizza can be a good base for additional vegetables you can add at home with your kids on those nights when time is an issue.

Finally, be a good role model. If your children see you eating in front of the TV, or opting for the drive-through instead of a healthy meal, they’ll be more likely to adopt these habits themselves in the future. Instead, make enjoying a healthy meal together a habit you can all embrace.

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