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Family Meals and Healthy Eating

By Charlyn Fargo

Growing up, family meals happened every night – despite chores, school activities, homework and my parents’ schedules. Living in the country, it wasn’t an option to run into town for a meal. “Town” was a half-hour away. My parents only went out on an occasional Friday night with a few neighboring friends, and when they did, it was a big deal. We’d stay home with a babysitter and have a TV dinner.

In my own family, that pattern has been harder to accomplish. Do we work more? Is it just easier to eat out? Are my kids involved in more activities? I’m really not sure. But I do know it’s worth taking time for family meals.

The goal is to have at least a couple of meals at home together every week. Seems simple until you map out schedules, but it’s worth the effort.

Here are a few reasons to take time to eat as a family:

  • There’s clear evidence that meal structure can heavily influence children’s long-term health. Kids and teens who share meals with their family three or more times per week are significantly less likely to be overweight, more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to have eating disorders, according to a 10-year study on the protective role of family meals in the Journal of Pediatrics.
  • With each additional family meal shared each week, adolescents are less likely to show symptoms of depression, less likely to use/abuse drugs and less likely to engage in delinquent acts, according to a study on family dinners and adolescent health in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
  • Adolescents who participate in even one or two family meals per week are less likely to be overweight or obese in adulthood than adolescents who never participate in family meals, according to an article in Public Health Nutrition.
  • When people cook most of their meals at home, they consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar and less fat than those who cook less or not at all.

The bottom line? Eating with your family is a healthy thing to do. Make it a priority and your kids’ health will benefit.

Healthy Eating on a Budget

My mom was the queen of doing her meal planning based on the grocery store flyer sales. When the flyer arrived in the mail, she would sit down and decide her menu for the week.

Canned vegetables (at 3 for $1) were gathered to make a healthy chili for football season. When a bottom round roast went on sale, she would put it in the slow cooker and use the leftovers in a vegetable soup (using those canned veggies on sale).

I still marvel at her planning skills and flexibility to use whatever was on sale that week. It forced her to be creative and try new recipes.

Here are a few other tips for eating healthy on a budget, gleaned from watching her over the years:

  • Eat first, shop later. If you go to the grocery store hungry, you’re likely to be an impulse shopper. Mom always went with a list in hand.
  • Look at your cupboards first so you don’t buy what you already have.
  • Think about getting two recipes out of a purchase. Mom would put a whole chicken in the slow cooker for one meal, then use the leftovers for a white chicken chili or chicken quesadilla.
  • Shop what is in season when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Mom would often buy extra tomatoes (if we didn’t have enough from our garden) at the farmers market and then turn them into sauce or homemade tomato juice.
  • Eat and cook at home instead of going out. Maybe because we lived in the country, going to a restaurant was a big deal and didn’t happen very often.
  • Buy items like oatmeal and rice in bulk rather than in instant packets. It’s always cheaper and usually healthier if you add your own ingredients.
  • Limit soda and fruit drinks. Choose milk or water from the tap.
  • Limit chips, cookies and high-calorie foods that are high in fat, sodium and sugar. If we had a cookie, it was because Mom made it from scratch.
  • Try a meatless meal every now and then. Meat is usually the biggest expense. Try substituting kidney, pinto, black or other beans, or eggs when they’re on sale.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian with Hy-Vee in Springfield, Illinois, and a spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at charfarg@aol.com.

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