Let's be honest - it's tough for parents to find the time to plan, prepare and share family meals while remaining relaxed enough to enjoy them.

There are dozens of reasons not to cook at home. But there are more important benefits to sharing nutritious meals with your loved ones, such as raising physically and emotionally healthy children with enhanced life skills, and saving on the cost of living.

Homemade family meals are cheaper than eating out and always healthier, and the emotional benefits of sharing meals with family members are impossible to ignore. After all, sitting down together to eat and talk enables families to feel more connected.

According to a 2004 survey conducted by the University of Minnesota, families eat more fruits, vegetables and dairy products when dining together.

But parents often find that their children resist new tastes. It may prove difficult, but youngsters need to be steered toward fruits, vegetables and whole grains rather than the sugary, salty and fatty foods they see on television and in restaurants.

Family meals should center on healthy foods.

Replace fatty or processed side dishes with cooked or fresh vegetables.

Dinners shouldn't include sweetened beverages - serve water, 100 percent fruit juice or milk instead. Parents and children drink more milk during family meals. After all, only 50 percent of children and 20 percent of teens get the daily recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D, two important nutrients in milk.

Another consideration is portion size. Large portions contribute to obesity. Children eat the portion of food that is served to them. Remember that different ages get different amounts of food.

Stay-at-home meals also allow for friendly conversation. (Avoid disciplinary talk.) If the television is on during dinner, family bonding is minimized. Children and teens are often unaware that they are full and the distraction of TV contributes to this. A family meal should be enjoyable, and this means turning off the tube.

Studies also show that children who eat more than two dinners per week at home with their family are happier and more likely to get better grades in school. These same children are also less likely to develop eating disorders.

Sadly, comparing current practices in dozens of countries, Americans are the most likely to eat alone at mealtime. But it doesn't have to be this way. Adults in the household can make family dining a priority by aiming for at least three to four home-cooked meals shared weekly.

If you can't eat together every night (or even every week) at least try to increase the number of times that the family sits down together to eat and visit. Holidays, birthdays and weekends are great times to have a congenial meal.

What may begin as an awkward gathering may soon become the normal routine. Before you know it, eating at home will become the gold standard, and eating a microwave dinner in front of the TV will become a thing of the past.

Each month the Missoulian features a column by the Healthy Start Council of the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, a coalition helping Missoula's kids grow up to be healthy and resilient. The Women, Infants and Children program is a member of Healthy Start. Mary Pittaway is WIC Program Director and can be reached at 258-4740 or pittawaym@ho.missoula.mt.us.

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