AMES, Iowa -- As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and dine-in eating establishments remain closed, Iowans are reinventing family mealtime, according to nutrition and wellness state specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Ruth Litchfield and Sarah Francis say Iowans are proving that a family meal does not need to be a five-course meal. And, family mealtime is not just about the food.
Today’s family meal
A family meal can be simple, Litchfield said. Consider using a slow cooker for a soup- or stew-based meal that can be ready to eat when the family is ready. Doubling some family favorites such as lasagna and placing the second meal in the freezer is another option. Family meals are not required to be made from scratch. Using some convenience items (canned soup or frozen pasta) can help cut down on time in the kitchen. Spend Smart Eat Smart, from ISU Extension and Outreach, offers more tips for cooking at home.
A family meal can also be carry/take out. Said Francis, “As long as the family sits down to eat the meal together, it is a family meal. Take-out pizza or sub sandwiches rounded out with a fruit or veggie salad and milk is a family meal.”
Finally, a family meal does not have to take place at home.
“Once the COVID-19 crisis passes, family meals can be shared at a restaurant, park or near the playing field. Just remember to include all family members and all food groups,” Litchfield said.
Involve the whole family
Litchfield and Francis suggest making family mealtime a family affair from preparation to clean up, not just at the table. This not only decreases the load on one person, but also builds teamwork, cooperation and family connections.
- All members of the family can help with menu planning. Each week, ask each family member to suggest one or two menu ideas for the week. Consider having one family member identify a new food or recipe to try each week as well.
- Family members can also help with food preparation. They may be more inclined to help if the menu being prepared was their suggestion. Make sure each family member has a specific task.
- Even small children can help set or clear the table, rinse produce, measure or mix simple ingredients, and cut soft fruit or vegetables with a plastic knife.
- Assign clean up tasks for all family members. Assign one family member to each of the following tasks: clear the table; repackage leftovers, date and place in refrigerator or freezer; clean dishes, pots and pans; clean counters and food preparation areas; take out garbage.
Benefits of family mealtime
Litchfield and Francis want Iowans to be aware of the benefits of family mealtime.
- Better communication. Mealtime conversations let family members share the daily happenings in their lives and get to know more about each other. Mealtime also can be an opportunity to plan family activities and discuss family needs. Make your family mealtime memorable with conversation starter cards. Download a set of age appropriate (adolescents, tots, kids, family) cards to get the table talk started.
- Stronger family bond. Every family has strengths. Eating together increases each family member’s sense of belonging and provides a setting for discussions that can reinforce values that are important to the family. Regular family meals create a routine that helps children feel more secure. Stronger bonds make it easier to deal with problems that arise.
- Shared learning. Eating together offers an opportunity to practice social skills, including table manners and conversation, as well as basic food preparation skills. Some studies have suggested that a higher frequency of family mealtime also improves academic performance and peer relationships as well as decreases substance use/abuse and stress.
- Improved nutrition. A more balanced, nutritious meal is likely to be prepared when most or all of the family eats together. Meals prepared at home also tend to be lower in calories, fat and sodium. Preparing your own meals can also save money.
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For more ideas for family meals, view this short “quickinar,” Reinvent Family Mealtime.