By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it was difficult to find time to sit down as a family for a meal. Children’s activities, rigid work schedules and a fast-paced lifestyle left families short on time and resources for family meals. During the pandemic many families found that despite the hardships of quarantine and stay at home orders family mealtimes were an unexpected benefit to being tucked in at home. The inability to get takeout meals also had people cooking at home more. September is family meals month and as our Nation begins to reopen and time gets stretched again it might be a good time to think about the benefits of family meals and how to keep this pandemic habit going, even if just a few times a week.
Family meals reach beyond a nutritional benefit and support many aspects of a child’s development. According to the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior the benefits of family meals are far reaching and can impact a child’s overall wellbeing. For instance, it has been shown that families who partake in regular family meals have children that tend to engage in less risky behaviors, such as drug use, and who are also less likely to be violent. A family meal is a wonderful time to hear about everyone’s day, of course this may take some digging. Instead of asking how was your day, ask what happened today that was funny or what happened today that was exciting to ignite the dinner conversation. Children also have better mental health from family meals and show a reduced rate of depression and suicide while they are also shown to be kinder adults. In addition to the social and development benefits of eating together as a family there is a nutritional value, children are shown to consume more vegetables and fruits. Family meals can nourish the mind, body and soul, consider how to fit them into a hectic schedule each week to benefit the entire family.
As good as the benefits might sound of having a family meal the reality of completing this task is not easy. If finding time to squeeze family meals in is a challenge, then look at ways to start small with a few nights or even one night a week and build on that. Try using a crock pot or instant pot when planning family mealtime so that meal prep is not an obstacle. If there are many activities in a night and mom’s taxi is driving all over town then try packing sandwiches and pulling over for a family meal at a park bench or on the bleachers to share some quality time and catch up. Try meal prep on the weekend and have the children help, planning will help to fill the what’s for dinner void and will be a time saver. For more ideas, recipes and information on family meals visit Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Family and Community Health Science’s family meals website.