When families eat together, meals are likely to be more nutritious and kids who eat regularly with their families are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods. Beyond health and nutrition, family meals provide a valuable opportunity for children and parents to reconnect. It has been shown that families who eat together are healthier and happier.

Some of the many benefits of family mealtime are:

• Relationships — Eating together helps build a close relationship with your children. It gives everyone in the family a chance to learn more about each other. Turn off the TV and do not answer the phone during mealtime. Instead use this time to talk, connect and make memories together. It is a lesson your children will use for life.

• Better nutrition — Meals prepared at home are usually more nutritious than meals eaten while dining out.

• Portion sizes — Children learn about correct portion sizes, food groups and nutrition when eating with their family. Let the children learn by serving themselves at dinner. Teach them to take small amounts at first. Tell them they can get more if they are still hungry.

• Stability — Eating with your child gives them a sense of security. Studies show that this decreases the chances that the child will engage in activities such as smoking and drinking.

• Saves money — Eating at home saves the family money. It is cheaper to cook meals at home than to dine out.

• Cooking skills — Get everyone involved in meal preparation. Kids love to help prepare food. Letting them help prepare food will help them feel valued and part of the family.

• Social skills — Eating together as a family gives the children an opportunity to learn and practice their social skills, table manners and conversation skills.

• New foods — Offer your children new foods, but do not force them to eat it. Let them choose how much to eat. Kids are more likely to enjoy a food when eating it is their own choice. It also helps them learn to be independent.

Check out the following tips to make family meals happen at your house:

• Schedule family meals. To plan more family meals, look at the calendar and choose a time when everyone can be there. Figure out which obstacles are getting in the way of family meals and see if there are ways to work around them. Even if it is only once a week, making it a habit to have family meals once a week is a great start and you can work your way up to two or three times a week. Don’t forget that breakfast and lunch are meals as well; there are no rules that say family meals should only happen in the evening.

• Prepare meals ahead of time. It is important to make a shopping list and make time to go to the grocery store so you have foods on hand to create meals. Try doing some prep work for meals on the weekend to get ready for the week ahead. On a night when you have extra time, cook double and put one meal in the freezer so when you are short on time you have a backup plan. Remember that a meal at home does not have to be complicated or take a long time to make. Crockpot and Instant Pot meals are also one way to get meals on the table quickly.

• Involve kids at family meals. Family meals can be fun and it is important to involve kids in them. Younger kids can set the table, pour beverages or fold napkins. Older kids can get ingredients, wash produce, mix and stir. You could even have your teens be the cook and you as the parent could be the kitchen helper.

• During mealtime, make your time at the table pleasant and enjoy being together as a family. Remember to keep your interactions positive at the table. Ask your kids about their days and tell them about yours. Give everyone a chance to talk. Another topic to discuss is future family meals and favorite foods that could be included. Remember, even if it’s one meal a week, that’s a great start.

• Themes are fun, too, like Meatball Monday or Taco Tuesday.

Try these recipes for a quick and easy meal on those hectic weekday nights:

Crockpot Chicken Tacos

2 pounds chicken breast, trimmed

1 red pepper, diced

1 green pepper, diced

1 onion (diced)

1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock

Add diced peppers and onion to the crockpot. Layer chicken breast evenly on top of vegetables.

Sprinkle with seasoning. Add chicken stock. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours or low for 4 hours.

Using two forks or your hands, shred the chicken breast. Mix shredded chicken breast with the vegetables and juices remaining in the crockpot.

Skinny Smothered

Pork Chops

6 boneless pork loin chops

1 teaspoon canola oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

One 8-ounce package sliced fresh mushrooms

1 can condensed 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon reduced-sodium soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon dried sage or thyme leaves

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

Trim any visible fat from pork chops.

Heat 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork chops; cook 4 minutes on each side or until slightly browned. Remove pork chops from skillet; set aside.

In same skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms; cook 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in soup, water, soy sauce, sage and pepper until well mixed. Heat to boiling. Return pork chops to skillet; spoon some of the sauce over pork. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 12-15 minutes, stirring and turning pork chops occasionally, until pork is no longer pink in center. Stir in sour cream until well blended and smooth.

Cook, stirring constantly, just until hot. Serve pork chops with mushroom mixture.

Crockpot Pork Tenderloin

1 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onion minced

3 garlic cloves minced

2 teaspoons dried rosemary

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 pork tenderloins

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons cold water

In a large crockpot, add all the ingredients except the pork, cornstarch and water, then mix until evenly combined. Add the pork and turn over to coat on all sides. Cook on low 6-8 hours or until pork is tender.

Remove pork from crockpot and place on a serving dish and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Allow pork to rest for about 7 minutes.

Thicken the sauce while pork is resting; in a small bowl, mix cornstarch with the cold water until it’s completely dissolved.

Pour all the liquid from the crockpot into a small saucepan. Add the cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil. Boil 1-2 minutes until mixture thickens.

Slice pork and pour the thickened sauce over it and serve.

Enchilada Casserole

1 pound lean ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

2 cups salsa

One 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 cup reduced-fat Italian salad dressing

2 tablespoons taco seasoning

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

6 flour tortillas (8 inches)

3/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1 cup shredded reduced-fat Mexican cheese blend

1 cup shredded lettuce

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro (optional)

In a large skillet, cook beef and onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in the salsa, beans, dressing, taco seasoning and cumin.

Place 3 tortillas in an 11-inch-by-7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Layer with half of the meat mixture, sour cream and cheese. Repeat layers.

Cover and bake at 400°F for 25 minutes. Uncover; bake until heated through, 5-10 minutes longer. Let stand for 5 minutes; top with lettuce, tomato and cilantro.

MICHELE ATKINS is the director for the Henry County Extension Service. Her email address is matkins1@utk.edu.

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