University of Illinois Extension

Make Time for Family Meals

Angela Reinhart, Family Life Educator

One common challenge of "parenting again" is meal time. You may have become used to cooking for one or two, eating when you liked, or occasionally meeting friends at a restaurant. Now, grandkids' busy schedules, sports practices, car pools, errands, and other daily tasks are priorities, often at the expense of meals and family time.

While your time to plan meals has probably changed, your need for serving healthful meals and spending time together as a family has not.

Studies show that families that take time to eat together are twice as likely to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables, and less likely to consume a lot of fried food and soda. These families also eat a diet higher in fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin C, and B vitamins. In addition, some studies suggest that children who eat with their families have higher grades, better test scores, a higher vocabulary, and a higher sense of belonging.

With so many benefits, you can't afford not to eat together as a family. Here are some ideas for making time for family meals.

  • If your grandchild has sports practice or will be late for dinner, take the meal to the child. Eat picnic style and enjoy family conversation!
  • Schedule a family night ­ a set night when everyone is expected to be together ­ no exceptions (unless it is an emergency). Have everyone in the family decide together what dinner will be ­ whether it's eating at a restaurant, having a "pasta" or "Chinese" night at home, or having pizza delivered.
  • Give everyone a job to make mealtime easier. Someone can set the table, fill glasses with ice cubes and drinks, make a salad, or help with clean up of pots and pans, for example. If the children are old enough, they can even help plan menus including their favorite foods or help with shopping for groceries.
  • If scheduling an evening meal is too difficult, choose another meal ­ like breakfast.
  • If eating together is almost impossible during the week, plan a special breakfast or dinner on the weekend.
  • Keep healthy microwave meals on hand for days when time is at a premium.
  • If your budget allows, buy the main course, like a bucket of chicken or a pizza, and add fruits, vegetables, and a healthy drink to round out the meal.
  • Make stews, soups, and roasts in a crockpot for a meal that is almost ready when you arrive home.
  • Plan meals to include leftovers, so that foods can be reheated later to save time.
  • Even though mealtime is a good chance to teach table manners, keep in mind the children's ages and have reasonable expectations. Use consequences, not criticism, to encourage good behavior.
  • Keep mealtime conversations fun, pleasant, and peaceful. A family meal is not the time to discuss school, money, or relationship problems.
  • Children have a natural sense of when they're hungry and when they're full. Do not expect or demand them to clean their plates.