Coming off the "Family Mealtime Challenge" in my unit last week (Dewitt, Macon, and Piatt counties), I am pumped to keep it going into October. October is Eat Better, Eat Together Month, and another time to encourage families to eat together.

I think anymore I rarely have to convince families that eating together is important. They understand the families who eat together have kids who are less likely to do drugs or alcohol, get better grades in school, and feel more connected to family.

Penn State Extension has a great article – almost a poem – on the subject: October is Eat Better, Eat Together Mont. Meals together go far beyond the food.

So, while most families think it is important, the hard part is making meals together happen each week. For the "Family Mealtime Challenge" in my unit, families are tasked to eat 5 meals together during the challenge week. I think you could do it too!

For my heads of household reading this, these are common barriers I hear. Try these ideas – or your own – to make family meals a routine in your house.

1. Time is limited. From work schedules, after school activities, homework, mowing the lawn, etc., a homemade dinner is not possible.
  • Use convenience foods. Canned beans, jars of salsa, frozen vegetables, frozen waffles, quick oatmeal, etc. are all foods that make meal prep quicker.
  • Make limited ingredient meals. How about five-ingredient Skillet Spaghetti or sautéed chicken, instant rice, broccoli, and stir-fry sauce?
  • Go easy. Maybe a take-out pizza or burgers are the way to go some nights. Pair it with a salad and fruit for a full meal. No need to judge the unexpected lack of a homemade meal. However, if the unexpected happens every night, it is time to reevaluate.
2. I don't know how to cook. Limited skills can leave a head of household unsure how to prepare a meal or avoid buying some foods.
  • Practice simple meals. As with many fears and concerns, sometimes you have to jump in. Try a meal that has few ingredients and seems like you can make it.
  • Watch videos. With social media and video recipes on most every site, you can learn how to prepare, cut, wash, cook, etc. different ingredients and meals.
  • Use convenience foods. Frozen chopped onions and peppers make a quick start to a meal. And no need to grab a knife. Pour from the bag and continue cooking your recipe.
3. Money is tight.
  • Make more from scratch. Remember, when someone else does the cooking for you (restaurants, take-out, frozen meals), you are paying for them to do the work.
  • Buy bulk. Some foods do well in bulk, like big bags of rice, boxes of cereal, oatmeal. Yes, you pay more up-front, but per-ounce or per-pound you save.
  • Buy cheap. Ground meats and bone-in and skin-on chicken are cheap. Chicken quarters are cheap and easy – pull of the skin, season, and bake or add to a slow cooker. If you have young kids, make sure they do not chock on the bones.
  • Use your freezer. Freezing is a great way to extend the life of your foods. I have cooked extra meat to freeze or made freezer meals. Sometimes frozen veggies are better quality than fresh.
4. I am not sure what is healthy.
  • MyPlate is a great resource. Spend some time reading.
  • Other state extensions have researched-based resources and blogs. Whatever you are searching for, search Extension. In Illinois, check out our different blogs.
5. My family does not want to eat together.
  • Make it routine. Family meals may not be a part of the routine, so start now with 1 day a week. Work up to that goal of 5 meals together a week (and it does not have to be dinner, fancy, or even at home).
  • Involve family. Maybe your spouse, partner, family members, and kids want to cook one day. (Keep in mind with kids, they tend to eat what they help make.) If not, give them a task, like setting the table, pouring drinks, washing dishes, scrapping their plates in the trash, etc.
  • Try tastings. Kids can go back and forth on what they like. Adults tend to know what they like or do not. Keep trying new foods and new recipes. Eventually you will have a longer and longer list of recipes your whole family enjoys.

Photo credit:  Iowa State University Extension, How to Freeze Leftovers video

Today's post was written by Caitlin Huth. Caitlin Huth, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator serving DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt Counties. She teaches nutrition- and food-based lessons around heart health, food safety, diabetes, and others. In all classes, she encourages trying new foods, gaining confidence in healthy eating, and getting back into our kitchens.