Time is a precious commodity when you’re juggling school-age kids and your own jam-packed schedule. So much to do, so much to say—how do you fit it all in and still find time to connect as a family?

Everyone has to refuel. There’s a temptation, though, to repurpose minutes you might otherwise spend gathered around the family dining table to eat. Extra minutes of sleep can seem like a fair trade-off for breakfast on the run or even no breakfast at all. A drive-through dinner will ensure that everyone gets to soccer practice on time. Yet these sorts of time-saving measures can cheat your family in the long run.

Breakfast Is for Champions

When pediatric nutrition specialist Jill Castle speaks to school-age children about the importance of breakfast, she likes to put it in words they’ll understand. The coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How To Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School will tell kids that while they’re sleeping each night, their young bodies are fasting, so when they wake up there’s a need to break the fast. In doing so, they’ll bump up their blood sugar levels and start their engines for the day.

A revved-up metabolism starts calories burning in their bodies, so the benefits of a good breakfast are twofold: It enhances focus and attention in the classroom, but perhaps even more significant for children, it staves off intense hunger before lunch. “That’s something that resonates with them because all kids know what it feels like to be hungry,” Castle says.

A good rule of thumb for breakfast is to have three food groups represented on the plate, one of which should always be a source of protein. That’s what Castle instructs children to aim for and, of course, parents to provide.

“It’s best to lay out a bunch of options and let kids put their own combinations together,” she says. A simple array of two or three cereals, a jug of milk, and cut-up fruit on the table is better for most children than presenting them with a plate full of food and instructions to eat it.

“That can bring on resistance, whereas if they feel they’re in control and can assemble things the way they want to, they’re far better eaters,” she says. A variation on this theme of three could be a platter of scrambled eggs, a tray of toast, and a jug of juice.

Breakfast may be brief, but it’s still a good time for families to take stock of the day ahead. Suzanne Boothe, a mom of four in Loveland, Ohio, mounted a whiteboard in her kitchen. She lists after-school activities and what the family should expect for dinner. “Depending on the night, it helps me determine how long we’re going to have to eat and how much time I’ll have for prep. And of course, it reminds the kids what’s happening each day,” she says.

Coming Together for Dinner

Long ago, when more families farmed, made quilts, or played musical instruments together, the importance of family dinner barely registered. “Now it’s the one reliable time of day that most American families have to connect with one another,” says Anne Fishel, a family therapist and associate professor of psychology at Harvard. It’s what prompted her to cofound the Family Dinner Project, a grassroots movement that pinpoints the benefits of family dinners and provides resources for families to achieve the ideal.

“Kids who feel connected to their parents do better in school,” says Fishel, who authored Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Healthier Families and Happier Kids, planned for release in January 2015. “Dinner is a time when parents can check in on how their kids are doing and possibly stave off problems down the road.”

Family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, and depression. There’s also strong evidence that regular family dinnertime and the resulting conversation promotes ethical thinking.

Of course, every family has weeks when activities and homework make dining together difficult. The good news is you don’t have to eat together every day for kids to benefit. On hectic days, find other ways to connect, like playing a game in the evening or even just sitting on the couch and talking.

When you can eat together, make the most of it by getting the kids involved. Younger children can set the table or clear it; older ones can handle tasks like making a salad.

“A great family dinner is one where everybody has some role in making it happen,” Fishel says. Sharing responsibilities also lengthens time spent together, and a livelier dinner happens when children feel they have some stake in the proceedings.

Keep things simple by serving only one basic meal. That way, the chef doesn’t feel like a short-order cook preparing four separate menus to accommodate disparate tastes. Accomplish this by arranging the fixings for tacos or personal pizzas, for example, in the center of the table and allowing everyone to craft their own.

The table should also feel like a welcoming place where each person has a voice and where no single individual dominates the conversation. Make the occasion a fun one with opportunities to laugh, relax, and have a good time. Show some appreciation for the food, the work that went into it, and the pleasure of being together. This doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken but can be part of the spirit of the dinner, Fishel says. And finally, as with any ritual, the dinner should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. No one should wander off during the meal, leaving little indication of whether they’re coming back.

Strive to come together and provide good ingredients, and you’ll be well on your way to reaping the benefits of family meal times.


Easy and Nutritious Breakfast Ideas

Healthy Egg Sandwich
Toast an English muffin. Scramble an egg with a splash of water in a microwave-safe bowl and cook it for one minute; it’ll come out as a flat circle. Let your child assemble the sandwich with a slice of cheese or Canadian bacon—his choice—and you have a healthy, high-protein breakfast that beats any fast-food version.

Fresh Fruit Parfaits
Lay out low-fat vanilla yogurt, sliced fruit, nuts, and granola (for really young children, puffed rice cereal is a good alternative), and let them layer their own parfaits.

Banana Pinwheels
Spread a tortilla with any kind of nut butter, put a whole peeled banana on it, roll it up, and slice it into rounds.

Smoothies
1 cup frozen fruit, 1/2 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup milk or juice, and a good blender are all you need. It’s super fast and simple, with the advantage of being portable. “Buy some thermo-insulated to-go cups for days you really have to get on the road,” says pediatric nutrition specialist Jill Castle.

Freelance writer June Allan Corrigan is a mother of two and a former kindergarten teacher who still substitutes on occasion. She resides with her family in La Quinta, Calif.