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Eating together: Some assembly required

by Alison Crane | August 15, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
In this edition, Alison Crane, family and consumer sciences agent with the Garland County Extension Service, shares recipes that get the whole family involved making. Submitted photo

When I was young, my family and extended family ate most of our meals together. Some of my memories of sitting down with my family to eat dinner bring back mixed feelings. At times there was stress involved depending on the mood of some family members. Most of the time, there was talk and laughter and occasionally sneaking a bean or two to the dog sitting conveniently behind my chair. We would share what we had done that day or just talk about whatever came to mind.

Sitting down together for meals on a regular basis as a family has been shown to be beneficial in many ways. Family meals also bring everyone together which can strengthen relational bonds. While eating together, parents serve as role models and can engage their children in table manners and healthy eating. Research has shown that youth who eat family meals have a lower chance of engaging in high risk behaviors such as violence and substance abuse, as well as fewer psychological problems.

Studies have also shown that family meals tend to be more nutritious, and kids tend to be less picky eaters because they are offered a wider variety of foods than what is offered on a children's menu at most restaurants. Families coming together and eating without the TV and other distractions actually helps to prevent obesity, because people tend to eat less and talk more.

While most people will acknowledge that family meals are important, sometimes making time in our busy schedules can be difficult. Some days are so overwhelmingly busy that just making sure everyone had something to eat is the best you can do. Work, chauffeuring, managing your home and everything else that must happen in a day's time can be overwhelming and leave us guilt-ridden.

Instead of being overwhelmed by the thought of adding one more thing to your to-do list, try these tips from Julie Penkalski, Teen Liaison for Hope Academy, a program of Family & Children's Center, to take the guilt out of trying to balance everything you have to do on top of preparing delicious and nutritious meals for your family:

• Start with small steps -- add one family meal to your plans instead of planning to eat together every night.

• Make family meals a priority. Like the old Nike commercial, sometimes you have to "just do it."

• Turn off the TV -- even if you can't sit at a table to eat, you can still focus on being together and talking, instead of mindless eating in front of a screen.

• Work as a family for cleanup -- cleaning the kitchen after a meal makes it easier to start preparing for the next meal.

• Get the kids involved in meal planning, preparation and setting the table.

Involving the family in the process lightens the load for everyone and can serve as valuable time for sharing as well as developing life skills. With that in mind, the title of this article not only is a play on words about the need for family members to assemble together for dinner, it also refers to the simple one-dish meal ideas included that have some assembly requirements to be able to eat them.

Most of these dishes can be made with whatever you have on hand or even as a way to use up leftover meats and vegetables. These recipes can allow you and your kids a little creative freedom and might even help you get started making your own family favorite recipes for the future.

To start, why not try setting up a baked potato bar? The nice thing about baked potatoes is you really can put any type of topping or leftovers that you want on them. When letting your child assemble the potato, set some guidelines trying to include a protein, dairy and one to two vegetables or fruits. You can set up all your potential toppers on the counter or the table and then everyone can assemble them. I have included a list of potential baked potato bar items and if you need some help knowing the best way to bake your potato use this link for help from the potato experts, Perfect Basic Baked Potato, Idaho Potato Commission,

The mini pizza recipe uses English muffins and is another good one to use up leftovers or get creative with your toppings. My kids are basically grown, and they still get excited when they see me setting out the pizza toppings and muffins. Keeping a package or two handy in your freezer can also make it possible for you to come up with a quick and easy meal instead of pulling out the nuggets and fries.

Fajitas are another assembly-required food item and can offer a quick and easy meal that can be low in fat and packed with lots of good flavors. Try the Fajita Spice Mix recipe to keep on hand for quick seasoning of whatever protein food you have on hand. You can split the mix recipe or keep your mix in a well-sealed container or baggie in the freezer to preserve the quality of the herbs and spices. You can also change up the amounts to fit the tastes or food allergies of your family. If you would like more homemade spice mixes or would like suggestions for ways to interact with your family at the dinner table, you can contact the Garland County Extension Service at 501-623-6841 or email [email protected]

Alison Crane is a Family and Consumer Science Agent with the Garland County Extension Service. Follow her on Facebook at GarlandExtensionHomeLife,

Baked Potato Bar

• Potatoes, baked in the microwave or oven (a medium potato is one serving)

• Topping ideas:

sour cream (I use plain regular or Greek yogurt)

cheese, shredded or sauce






tortilla chips

chopped broccoli (cooked or uncooked)

cooked ground beef or turkey, flavored any way you like it

chopped up cold cuts

ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, etc.

leftover vegetables, cooked or uncooked

Quick Hawaiian Mini Pizza

Makes 4 servings (1 slice each)


4 slices whole wheat bread or 2 regular or whole wheat English muffins, halved

1 cup spaghetti sauce (or tomato sauce with seasonings)

1 cup pineapple tidbits in own juice, drained

1 cup lean ham, diced (can keep in freezer)

½ cup reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, shredded


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast bread or muffins until very lightly browned.

  2. Place toasted bread or muffins on a baking sheet.

  3. Spread ¼ of the spaghetti sauce on each slice.

  4. Place ¼ the pineapple tidbits and ¼ the diced ham on top of spaghetti sauce on each slice.

  5. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of cheese on top of pineapple and ham on each bread slice or muffin half.

  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 4-6 minutes or until cheese melts and bread or muffins are thoroughly heated.

Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories, total fat 6g, saturated fat 2.5g, protein 12g, total carbohydrate 40g, dietary fiber 9g, sodium 390mg. Excellent source of vitamin C, good source of calcium and iron.

Suggestion: Create delicious pizza varieties by replacing the pineapple and ham in this recipe with other vegetables and lean meat choices.

Fajita Seasoning Recipe


¼ cup chili powder

2 Tablespoon salt (Need to watch your sodium? Reduce this amount or cut out completely)

2 Tablespoon paprika

1 Tablespoon onion powder

2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 Tablespoon cumin

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)


Mix well in bowl or jar and store in an airtight container until use. Use about 1 teaspoon per chicken breast or steak when making fajitas.

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