Life can get busy at the Warner household in Edina, with a high school senior and a seventh-grader in the mix. But Mary Warner, as mom, has found a way for the family to sit down around the dinner table at least a few nights every week.

“We eat a lot later than we used to eat when the kids were little. Some nights we might not eat dinner until 8 o’clock, but for us, that’s what works,” she said.

Warner believes that James, 17, and Isabelle, 12, really do enjoy spending time with their mom and dad, Andy, at the end of the day. For one thing, it’s a break from their nightly homework routine and a chance for them to relax a bit.

Family dinners are good for you

Whether it’s adjusting the dinner hour or  making breakfast the go-to family meal, the benefits of carving out at least a few opportunities weekly to gather the family can be significant, especially for children and teens.

Studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University show that children in families that eat together three times per week have a lower risk of substance abuse and are likelier to get better grades in school.

The once predictable family dinner routine began to change dramatically about 20 years ago when kids became involved in more sports and other after-school activities.

Experts say — and many parents know — that creating a family mealtime ritual is a way to bring structure to a child’s life and can help develop a sense of safety and security. It is also the best way to foster good eating habits in children. This is where  parents can make a big impact by offering healthful food choices.  

Plan ahead and be ready

Although many busy parents rely on fast foods or convenience options at mealtime, putting together a simple, healthful dinner can be just as easy with a little planning.

“It’s interesting because I often meet young parents who tell me they never learned how to cook. They didn’t learn in school or from their own parents, so the thought of planning and making meals is intimidating to them,” said Jill Kokkonen-May, a health and nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service.

She advises parents to stock the refrigerator and pantry with items such as fresh or frozen vegetables (or low-sodium canned options), meat, beans and whole-grain pasta. If cooks have time over the weekend, it makes mealtime easier if one or two meals are made in advance and frozen for later in the week.

Family mealtime serves as an opportunity to introduce new foods to kids, which is where parents might want to do a little role-modeling, even when one of their own least favorite vegetables shows up on the plate.

Back at the Warner household, Mary, who grew up in a family that always had a big vegetable garden, is a frequent farmers market shopper. She tends to include a lot of fresh foods in her meal planning. Even when her children were young, she brought her kids along to the grocery store and involved them in family menu choices.

“There are some nights when I’m better prepared than others, but I always make sure I have something available to put together,” said Warner. “For us, even if dinner only lasts for 15 minutes, it’s 15 minutes that we’re not doing something else and we’re here. It really is my favorite time of the day.”

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul writer.

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