Tips and Tricks for Making Meal Time Better

smiling little girl with mother chopping tomatoesIn my last post, I shared the mental health benefits of sharing meals together.  As promised in that post, this week I would like to share some practical tips for improving meal times. 1.  Get Everyone Involved!  Here are some of the benefits of involving the whole family in the process of getting the meal to the table:

It Fosters a Team Mentality -   When people work together to accomplish a common goal, they are bound together.  In a society that prizes individual accomplishment, we have lost this concept of working together as a team.  We revere people who are "self-made" and who claim to have "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps".  Independence is a Western concept.  While it is easy to admire people who beat all of the odds and achieve their goals, the reality is that it can be lonely at the top.

It Spreads The Load -  John Heywood, an English writer from the sixteenth century, is credited with the saying "Many hands make light work."  Getting dinner on the table is less daunting when everyone pitches in.

It Creates an Attitude of Appreciation - When everyone does their part, no one feels like they are taken for granted and the rest of the family learns how much work goes into preparing a meal.

It Motivates Kids to Make Good Food Choices - Planning and preparing meals with your children helps them learn to make good choices.  They are also more likely to eat what is served when they have input into what they eat.  To make the most of teaching good nutrition, be sure to offer them things they love that are better food choices.  If your children love kiwi, be sure to offer it.  This works for packing lunches too.  You can have several healthy options and set some guidelines for how to choose items for their lunches and let them have fun packing their own lunch.  For example, give them several protein options, several vegetable options, several fruit options, and several grain choices and let them decide what to put together.  You can dictate how many choices they can make from each food group.

2.  Make Use of Meal Planning Services.  There several types of meal planning services available that fit different lifestyles and budgets.  Here are some of the options:

Freezer Meals  -  A lot of people are taking one Saturday a month and preparing meals for weeknights that will last the whole month.  They spend the whole day chopping, mixing, and cooking.  They place each meal in freezer safe containers and store in the freezer for later.  The day before they plan to eat the meal, they pull it out of the freezer and it is ready to either pop into the oven or finalize preparation after work.  You can even make a fun day of it by getting together a small group of friends and doing it together.  Here are some resources you can find on the web if you are interested in how this works:

30 Meals in One Day 30 Day Café 30 Day Gourmet Once a Month Meals

Meal Preparation Kitchens - There are franchises that allow you to choose the meals you want to make and you sign up for a session to go to their kitchen and put your meals together in freezer safe containers.  These operate on a similar principle as the freezer meal option above.  The difference is that they do all of the shopping, planning, chopping, etc.  Each meal is set up in a different station with instructions on how to prepare the meal.  You move from station to station preparing meals and putting them in a cooler to take home.  It is pricier than doing it at home but they have done most of the work.  If you are really in a bind for time, some places will even put them together for you to pick up for an additional fee.  Here are some links to some of these types of stores:

Dream Dinners Dinners Ready Dinner by Design

Here is a link for a directory of these types of businesses by state.

Online Menu Planning Services -With most of these services you can sign up to receive a subscription and they will send you a new weekly meal plan complete with recipes, shopping lists, and prep-ahead instructions to save time on cooking day.  There are many options for different types of food restrictions.  One service bases their meal plans on local sales ads to help save you money.  Here are some to choose from:

The Fresh 20 - This service offers menu's that use 20 ingredients each week. All of their recipes consist of fresh, whole ingredients.

eMeals - This service offers many different type of meal plans from clean eating to low-fat, to traditional family meals.  You choose your meal plan type and your favorite grocery store.

Local Thyme - This menu planning service creates meals around seasonal produce for those who subscribe to CSA deliveries.  No more guilt over wasted produce from your box!

3.  Engage in Meaningful Conversation.   Do you have trouble getting meaningful feedback from your children when you ask them how their day was?  You know the blank stares and the mumbled responses.  One way to encourage open conversation is to ask open-ended questions.  Avoid questions that  that can be answered with a 'yes" or "no".  Here are some great dinner-time conversation starter ideas to spark more meaningful conversation:

50 Family Dinner Conversation Starters from Six Sisters' Stuff

Conversation Starters from The Family Dinner Project

100 Questions to Ask Your Kids from Family Education

You can print the questions and put them on index cards and place in a basket or napkin holder BlogPic3on your table.  Another idea is to write the questions on popsicle sticks and place the sticks in a decorative jar to be pulled out and read.  You can get creative and find a way to use these questions that suits your family's style.  If you don't have a creative bone in your body and would rather purchase something like this, here are a few products that will help you accomplish the same thing:

BlogPic6  BlogPic4BlogPic5

I would love to hear from you!  What are some tools you have found useful for making mealtime easier and better?