Family Meals

The following articles provide tips for preparing food at home. The evidence shows that households are in better shape — physically and financially — when they focus on healthy, home cooked meals!


Preparing Family Meals:  Is the Time Worth It?

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Last year’s “Share the Table” Barilla study was an eye-opener even for me, someone who has been working in Cooperative Extension and teaching families since the 1980’s. Looking at a large, representative sample of American adults, this study supported by Barilla Foods revealed that Americans view family dinners as THE place to foster family connections, even much more important than many other activities that families can do together, including vacations! It also elaborated on the benefits of sharing meals with family members as they are less likely to be overweight. So, the fact is, according to several studies, sitting down to share a meal together with your family makes people happier and healthier.

Looking at the family, which is a very complex unit, the results of the health benefits of family meals is wonderful, but also the emotional benefits of eating together, encourages family connections. So how does a busy family find time to prepare and eat together as much as possible?  What do kids and parents say about the value of eating together?  Some interesting findings were that family meals matter as much to kids as they do for adults. As parents, we might feel we are “pushing” the family dinner on our kids, but this study shows that’s not the case. Kids and parents feel closer to each other; kids appreciate their parents more; and they feel that their parents are more relaxed and fun to be around. Laughter is the top attribute that defines the quality of the family dinner.

Other findings that define a quality dinner include the relaxed atmosphere at the table.  There is cohesiveness as everyone in the family is included, enjoys the same food and conversation and participates as if they were on a “team together”.  The family remains seated until everyone is finished showing respect for each other and the family unit as a whole.  While technology is definitely present in some form at some dinner tables (particularly the television), this often causes negative moods, atmospheres and conversation is not possible. 

Technology is the main barrier to high quality dinners—people are tired or rushed, not everyone is present, not everyone likes what is eaten, people leave the table before everyone is finished, or there is an argument. You might not be able to change the mood at your dinner table overnight, but you can start to improve the quality of your family meals. Nearly half of parents and kids (47%) agree that their family’s busy schedule makes it harder for them to find time to spend together and connect. Busy schedules belong to both the parents and the children, with 32% of parents and 25% of kids agreeing that one or both parents’ work schedules often prevent their family from eating together, and with 23% of parents and 16% of kids agreeing the family is usually too busy with activities like sports and lessons to have a family dinner together.

Once at the dinner table, distractions are a threat to meal time. Nearly one-third of parents (30%) agree their child is often distracted at dinner time with other things and nearly one quarter of kids (23%) feel this way about their parents. Technology is one of those distractions. Despite an effort to ban technology at the table by 27% of parents and 19% of kids, someone still uses it during dinner. Television is the dominant form of technology present at the dinner table with one-third of parents (32%) and kids (33%) personally watching TV always or often during dinner. Despite this relatively high number, this represents an improvement over former findings in which 50% of parents said that dinner and TV-watching happened at the same time.

In order to enjoy family meals, everyone needs to be present physically and emotionally.  The family meal time should be treated as a “special” time for communication, building unity and good health.  We need to protect the family meal as a family ritual and it will force all members, adults and kids, to bring their best self to the table and stay there. Doing this makes the family meal a special time each day rather than a daily feeding event.   So, shut off the television, leave cell phones at the door and don’t allow technology to spoil a family meal and quality time together.  Busy schedules and technology are both threats to family dinners.

Having higher quality mealtime experiences are important for families and kids. Research reports that parents are happier and more satisfied with their lives and kids are more likely to say they are respectful, happy, rule followers, confident, independent, hard-working, show leadership skills, and are outgoing in their actions at school and on-the-job.

So, the next time you get together for a family dinner when everyone is there, take the time to relax, start a conversation that everyone can participate in, and let good feelings and some laughter flow. You and your kids will be better for it.

The Barilla study was conducted by William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. He is a leading American scholar and educator on the challenges of contemporary family life and has made significant contributions to the understanding of the importance of families spending time together sharing meals and other activities in a hurry-up world.



Is it Healthier to Cook at Home?

by Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS

Family & Community Health Sciences Educator

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Over the past few decades, Americans have been eating out more and cooking at home less often. When you cook at home, however, you can often make better choices about what and how much you eat and drink than you do when eating out. Cooking can also be a fun activity and a way for you to spend time with family and friends.

When eating at home, remember to focus on foods you need, eat fewer empty calories, and decrease portion sizes. Many recipes include calorie content per serving. Compare calorie content and choose meals that fit within your daily calorie needs. If cooking for a family, family members may each have different calorie needs.

You can still cook the same nutritious foods, but vary the portion sizes. For example, an active adolescent male can still eat the same foods as his five-year-old sister, but he will just eat more.

If you don’t usually cook at home, start gradually. Make it a goal to cook once a week and work up to cooking more often.  A healthy meal starts with more vegetables and fruits and smaller portions of protein and grains. Think about how you can adjust the portions on your plate to get more of what you need without too many calories.

Don’t forget reduced-fat dairy by making it a beverage with your meal and by adding fat-free or low-fat dairy products to your plate. You don’t have to eat from every food group at each meal, but thinking about the food groups can help you build a healthy meal pattern. Check out these tips for healthier meals:

  • Plan ahead to make better food choices. Keep healthy staples on hand, such as dried fruit, whole wheat pasta, “no-salt-added” canned vegetables, and frozen fruit.
  • Experiment with healthy recipes and look for ways to make your favorites healthier. For example, use low-fat or reduced-fat dairy products by replacing sour-cream with low-fat or fat-free yogurt. Also use spices and herbs to add more flavor instead of adding salt or butter.
  • Use smaller plates and put a small portion of food on your plate to manage portion sizes. Remember to only eat seconds if still hungry.

Below are some common “stumbling blocks” to eating at home and ideas to help you overcome these barriers: 

  • I’m tired of being the only one that cooks.” Make cooking a family event. Get your children involved with the prep work. This will help to teach them about healthy eating, and it also serves as a way for you to spend time with your children. Have an occasional potluck. Invite friends over and have everyone bring their favorite healthy dish.
  • “I don’t have time to cook a big meal every night; it is easier to just order out.” Cooking does take time, but try prepping dishes the night before, or that morning  prep the salad or the side dish.  This will help to save time after work. Also try cooking a big meal on Sunday and then eating it as leftovers and freezing the extras.
  • “My family prefers to eat out; when I cook at home, they complain.” Changing a family pattern is difficult. By using small steps, start by eating one more meal at home each week than you normally do. To mix things up, try a new recipe. It’ll help keep your family excited about dinner at home and will encourage them to make healthier food choices.


“Dine In” to Save Money Today and Tomorrow

by Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®

Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management

Rutgers Cooperative Extension, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences,

Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

When people are asked to identify their discretionary expenses, food eaten at restaurants often tops the list. Eating out, along with entertainment expenses, is frequently identified as an item to reduce or cut from family budgets to free up money to save/invest or cope with a reduction in income.

This is not surprising because about a third of the money spent on food in the United States is spent at foodservice establishments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over time, the amount of money saved by eating meals at home and/or prepared at home (e.g., a “brown bag” lunch) is noteworthy. For example, according to the Eating Away at Your Future poster on the Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ website, someone could accumulate almost $50,000 in 20 years by eating out one less evening per week and investing the money saved at a 5% yield.

Online tools like the Brown Bag Savings Calculator are useful to make personalized calculations of the amount of savings that can be realized with home-prepared food. It is not uncommon to be able to prepare three or four meals at home for the cost of one meal dining out (food plus gratuity).

A key take-away is that the money people save by eating more meals at home is just the beginning of their potential savings. For additional financial impact, this money could be invested and allowed to grow over time. Through the magic of compound interest (i.e., earning interest on previously earned interest), small dollar amounts can grow handsomely.

At some point, money saved by earmarking the difference in cost between home- and restaurant-prepared meals can even begin to generate income to live on (e.g., bond or CD interest and dividends and/or capital gains on stocks). In other words, not only can you save money by eating at home, but you can actually make money!

Another way that home-prepared food impacts personal finances is the linkage between restaurant meals and overweight/obesity. People tend to eat healthier meals when they eat at home because they can better control portion sizes and the use of sauces, dressings, and other high-fat ingredients.

While many restaurants offer some healthy choices and some even list calorie counts for certain foods, low-calorie dining options may be limited. In addition, some restaurants only offer food prepared in a certain way such as salads that are served drenched in salad dressing.

Following are some health benefits of eating more meals eaten at home:

  • Ability to select low-fat, low-sodium, and low-calorie ingredients
  • Ability to make healthy ingredient substitutions such as applesauce for oil in baked goods
  • Less temptation to eat tasty, but unhealthy, foods and large food portions
  • Lower likelihood of children becoming overweight or obese
  • Higher intake of health-promoting nutrients (e.g., Vitamin C and calcium) and dietary fiber
  • Knowing exactly what you are eating, especially if a family member has food allergies

Beyond the money saved by reducing the frequency of spending on restaurant meals, there is another way that eating meals at home affects household finances. Poor health and nutrition habits often translate into high out-of-pocket medical expenses. As explained in the Small Steps to Health and Wealth ™ workbook, a person’s health and finances are strongly associated with one another and “the greatest wealth is health.”

It is widely known that long-term consumption of high-fat, high-calorie foods can lead to health “issues” such as high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, arthritis, and some types of cancer. People who eat healthy meals at home and adopt a healthy lifestyle with recommended levels of physical activity are less likely to develop expensive health conditions that can drain family wealth.

Even with health insurance, many people with medical conditions that require surgery and hospitalization face significant out-of-pocket costs for policy deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance.

Limiting “shocks” to your finances, including expensive health care related expenses and prescription drugs, was identified as one of eight pathways to becoming a millionaire in the book Eight Steps to Seven Figures by Charles B. Carlson.

Want to be healthy and wealthy? Dine in and eat more meals at home.





Visit Small Steps to Health and Wealth for many more simple, commonsense tips for improving family nutrition and strengthening the household budget.