Dinner, Family Style

When you sit down to a family meal, your kids learn to eat and enjoy healthy foods.
Tired of hiding cookies from your kids and nagging them to eat more fruit? There's an easier way. If you want your children to eat a healthy diet, sit down to a family meal — every day.

Several studies have shown that children and teens who eat with their parents have healthier diets, including higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and important nutrients such as calcium, folate and iron. They are also less likely to exhibit high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, depression/suicide, violence and school problems.

While dinner is the traditional opportunity to share good food and catch up on everyone's day, many busy families have schedules that don't allow for this. So be creative and designate the family meal that works for your brood: A daily family breakfast can be just as important and beneficial as family dinner. Try these tips for making any meal a family meal.

1. Include kids in planning
Give them a reason to be interested in the meal by asking them to help prepare the food and select the weekly menu. Even a three-year-old can tear up the leaves for a salad or help set the table. Older kids can take on the responsibility for entire meals, like lunch on the weekends.

2. Encourage table talk
"I did some surveys with eight- to 12-year-old children and found that the major reason they liked going to McDonald's or other fast-food joints was not the food, but because their mother was in a good mood because she didn't have to cook," says Rosemary Stanton, a nutritionist based in Australia. The fact that the family sat around, talked, and were nice to each other because they were in public also scored high. Bring that "eating out" good mood to your own table.

3. Serve buffet-style
This works particularly well with fussy eaters. As they serve themselves, kids learn to assess how much food they want and feel they have some say in what they eat. Better still, their plate is empty when they first sit down so they can't complain about what's on it!

4. Turn off the television
The same healthy-eating rules that apply to you apply to the kids. "When children gobble down food while doing something else, they're less satisfied and more likely to want a snack later," Stanton warns.

5. Consider presentation
A fruit salad with apples, bananas, and oranges might pale in comparison to a Hershey's bar. But serve that same dish in an attractive bowl with a few chocolate sprinkles on top and your kids will soon be asking for a second helping. Too busy to cook? Serve take-out on dinner plates and eat it at the dining table, preferably with a homemade salad.