During September, Wegmans Food Markets will go all-out to encourage customers to share one more meal each week at home with the family. As part of National Family Meals Month, Wegmans will Tweet ideas for kid-friendly meals and table talk, offer links to yummy recipes in the e-newsletter Fresh News, and focus in Wegmans Menu magazine on how shared meals help the whole family. In stores, employees will share ideas that shorten the time it takes to get a meal on the table so there’s more time to enjoy being together.
Back-to-school time is here and dozens of studies show that eating together often as a family can improve children’s and teens’ lives in multiple ways, including better physical and mental health and stronger academic performance. A recent Cornell University study offers an overview of this research.
Yet many families struggle with organizing school and work schedules to make time for a sit-down meal, so Wegmans looked for advice from a voice of experience on how to make it happen. The company found that voice in Marda Heuman, RDN, Wegmans nutritionist for the Pennsylvania area, who also is a single working mom with two teenagers at home. Here are her top five tips:
Tip #1: Make it a priority. “In our house, we’ve had a tradition of family meals for years, and I don’t think my family is much different from lots of others,” Heuman says. “I work and I have two very active kids at home – a 17-year-old daughter in high school who’s a dancer and an 18-year-old son who played varsity soccer and is now going off to college. I do know how getting everyone’s schedules in sync can be frustrating – that’s why you need to prioritize this time together so you can make eating together a habit.”
Family mealtimes don’t always have to be dinner, she says. “If someone’s work shift or an activity runs through dinnertime, think about eating breakfast together or even a snack break. The exact time of day isn’t the important thing. What matters is that you carve out a little time to talk and eat.”
Tip #2: Make a plan. “My kids are involved in planning, and that’s a good way to make sure the kids are on board. We make a list of the proteins, vegetables, fruit, and starches that we like, and that’s our shopping list for the week. Most nights, dinner will be a combination of those things. Friday nights are special: we make our own pizza with Naan bread and healthy toppings and we watch a movie or a TV show together. It’s a fun way to relax and be together after a busy week.”
Tip #3: Fill the pantry. Shopping lists and weekly planners may not work as well for families whose schedules are hard to predict. The solution? “Fill the fridge, pantry and freezer with items that combine at the last minute for a healthy meal,” Heuman says. “Keep on hand items that can combine to make a quick dinner salad, such as canned beans or chickpeas, tuna, salad dressings, deli meats, hard-cooked eggs and pre-washed bags of salad greens. Other good pantry items include pasta, steamable packets of brown rice that are ready to serve after 90 seconds in the microwave, heat-and-eat Wegmans veggie bowls that come in lots of varieties, and ready-to-cook meat or seafood entrées in the meat and seafood departments of the store. Having a variety of bottled sauces and salsa on hand also makes it easier to bring variety and taste appeal to last-minute meals.”
Tip #4: Keep it Simple. The point of family meals is to create an atmosphere that encourages everyone to share what’s on their minds and enjoy a nourishing meal. “It works better when you’re not trying too hard,” Heuman says. “Pick recipes that are easy and avoid foods that may seem too exotic for kids. It’s fine to introduce new foods from time to time and to encourage kids to have a bite, but serving dinners that are simple and feature foods the kids like will give this tradition more staying power.”
One more “keep it simple” tip from Heuman: Keep distractions to a minimum during the family meal, so everyone can focus on the experience of being together. That may mean turning off the TV and other electronic devices.
Tip #5: Make it fun. “Conversation is as important as the food,” Heuman says, “so it’s good to think in advance about topics that will draw kids into the conversation and engage their imagination, like
- What was the best part/worst part of your day today?
- Where do you think the family should go on our next vacation? What should we bring along?
- If you could be any animal, which one would you be, and why?
Through conversations like these that engage everyone, Heuman says, a deeper knowledge of everybody around the table emerges. Parents know their kids better, and kids discover sides of mom or dad that they didn’t see before.
Looking back on all the years that family meals have been a tradition in her home, Heuman has this to say: “Sharing meals has helped us be a stronger family. This habit has taught my kids to make good choices with food, to know what makes a healthy meal, to practice conversation and to understand table etiquette.”
That’s a lot of goodness to be thankful for!