Throughout the year, don’t forget to make time for family meals. Family meals help provide a consistent opportunity to create a meaningful experience that offers benefits to both children and parents. Family mealtime improves communication and nutrition, builds stronger family bonds, and is an occasion for parents to teach important skills to their children. In addition, meals prepared at home are often less expensive and more nutrient rich.

Not every meal has to be an extravagant sit-down dinner. The most important thing about family mealtime is to make it frequent, fun and family-centered. Mealtime should be avoided as a time for disciplinary lectures. Instead, save such conversations for a time away from the dinner table, and focus on being together in a positive way. Limit distractions and keep in mind that family meals can be at breakfast, lunch or dinner — during the week or on weekends. Family meals provide a sense of unity and identity and can become a vehicle for carrying on valued family traditions, such as having a particularly favorite dish on someone’s birthday or going to a favorite place to eat together on special occasions.

Since life can be hectic, here are a few tips from Iowa State and Purdue Extension on how to encourage easy and enjoyable family meals at home:

• Make family mealtime a priority and schedule family meals. Set aside time on the calendar for family meals just like you schedule other important activities and appointments. If you must cancel for a very good reason, make sure to reschedule the meal for another time during the same week.

• Plan ahead. Use make-ahead recipes that you can freeze, or use a slow cooker to prepare a meal that can be ready to eat when the family is ready to eat.

• Keep meals simple. Family meals don’t have to be grand affairs. Choose a protein, whole grain, vegetable, fruit and dairy and you will have a balanced, healthy meal to serve to your family.

• Plan times to eat together besides dinner. If a family meal just isn’t possible, find 15 to 30 minutes when you and your family can sit together to recap the day. Maybe it’s during a bedtime snack or a picnic before practice.

• Keep in mind that you do not have to do everything. Get everyone involved in the planning, shopping, preparing and clean-up of meals. When kids are involved in the process, they are more likely to consume the foods you offer them.

• Eliminate distractions. Turn off all electronic devices, including the television, and focus on each other. This should be a time to relax, share and reconnect.

• Make mealtime pleasant. Children learn social skills from listening and watching their parents. Parents can set a positive tone for family meals and set a good example by listening and sharing.

• Try using open-ended questions to start family conversations. One question to ask could be, "What was the most interesting thing that happened today?" This is different from asking, "Did you have a good day?" because it prompts more than a "yes" or "no" answer.

Even if you do not regularly eat with other people, there are several ways you can change up the time, place, and process of eating to make it more enjoyable. Here are a few ideas:

• Eat in a different location, like your porch or the park, on a nice day.

• Set your table with a placemat and flowers and listen to music during your meal.

• Start a meal club with friends.

• Find out if community centers or organizations hold community meals.

• Invite neighbors or friends over for dinner.

• Change it up and try new recipes; plan your meals for the week to make shopping easier.

• If able, go out to eat every once in a while and try new places.

Eating meals with others creates a valuable experience that promotes healthier meals, conversation, and mindful eating. If you have any questions, call 330-264-8722.

Sara Meeks is an OSU Extension Family & Consumer Sciences Program Assistant and may be reached at 330-264-8722.