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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Don’t complicate family meals

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

four depictions of families eating together

One of the main barriers to family meals is the unrealistic expectation that they require perfect attendance, complicated recipes, all five food groups, the “good” dishes, and a family resembling a Norman Rockwell painting.

For this reason, our Promoting Family Meals working group at Purdue University, way back in 2006, answered the question...

What is a family meal?

We created this definition:

“A “family meal” is when the people you live with come together to eat and talk. It can include everyone or it can be just you and your child. Family meals don’t have to be fancy, and they can be eaten at home or away. They are best when you can talk and listen to each other away from the noise of the television.”

If we were writing that definition today, the last sentence would read… “They are best when you can talk and listen to each other without the distraction of phones or the TV.”

How to help uncomplicate family meals

We created a handout, titled “Let’s Talk About Mealtime,” along with other free resources for teaching about family meals in community settings.

In addition to highlighting the benefits of family meals, this handout provides a tool for setting practical goals to:

  • Find time for family meals

  • Find good places to eat together

  • Eat easy, healthy, and tasty meals

  • Focus on our family, not the TV

  • Enjoy family time together

Setting goals for achieving family meals

When we created the goal-setting portion of the handout, we utilized the Stages of Change behavior change model to develop four potential action steps for each goal.

  1. The first suggested action step was designed for the person just contemplating the desired behavior.

  2. The second was for the person preparing to take action.

  3. The third was for the person actively engaged but needing ideas to make it easier or more effective.

  4. The fourth and final suggestion was for the person needing to make the action a consistent habit or to try a new approach.

Here’s what this looked like for the goal to “Focus on our family, not the TV”:

1. Think of why it’s good to eat away from the TV and talk together.

2. Pick ____ meals to eat away from the TV this week.

3. Try conversation starters to get your family talking.

4. Turn off the TV during meals ____ times this week.

As mentioned earlier, add the phrase “phones or electronic devices” to “the TV” in the statements above.

Begin with why we want to achieve our goal

This step-wise approach works well for taking action on meeting goals. All too often we jump right to the highest level and fail. By working through the stages and beginning with answering the “why this action is important” question before proceeding, you will be set up for success.

Take advantage of resources

Many of the resources available (see the links below) for promoting family meals are focused on ways to simplify their preparation and increase their likelihood for success.

By making eating together a priority, planning ahead, and keeping the preparations uncomplicated and shared among family members, family meals can be a reality enjoyed by all.

For more on family meals, visit my promoting family meals page for free resources about family meals.

Learn more about these initiatives build awareness of the benefits of sharing meals and provide practical solutions to the most common barriers to eating together:

Don't complicate family meals! Enjoy them.

There is something profoundly satisfying about sharing a meal. Eating together, breaking bread together, is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences.” ~ Barbara Coloroso

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