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Nathan and Anika Pinke share a family meal together. (Katie Pinke/Agweek)

3 simple rules to make the most of family meals

Did you know September is National Family Meals Month? Less than 40 percent of American families eat meals together three or more times a week, and 10 percent of families never eat together, according to Food Marketing Institute and ConAgra surveys. As a mom, I know firsthand the importance of carving out time for family meals in a hurried world with full schedules.

Most days, I try to plan, prepare and serve quick and healthy meals. When time allows, I love hosting extended family and friends in our home and sharing a meal together. I have to remind myself that it's less about an extravagant meal and more about the people gathered around the table.

Sometimes coming up with recipe and meal ideas is a challenge. I enjoy following food blogs for inspiration. In addition to making my family's favorites, I ask my kids and husband what they're hungry for, then work some of their ideas into my meal planning.

Nathan likes The Pioneer Woman's chicken spaghetti. Elizabeth likes burritos. Anika likes tater tot hotdish. Hunter is an always-hungry college football player whose favorites include steak and mashed potatoes, my California dairy farmer friend Nancy's recipe for Chicken Marbella, homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese, enchiladas and cream salmon on toast. I think my grandma or mom invented cream salmon on toast, and it continues to be a family favorite.

On a few occasions, friends have gathered in my kitchen to make freezer meals together. We each choose one of our favorite recipes, make it six times and then exchange dishes, ending up with six different recipes ready for the freezer and a quick meal. It's fun and makes food prep so much more pleasant.

Below are my three simple rules to enjoy a family meal to its fullest:

• Set the table. A meal feels more special when the table is prepped for the occasion. It sets the stage for family time. My girls learned how to set the table in 4-H Cloverbuds and do it nightly.

• No electronics, sounds or screens at the table. For our family, this means the TV is off. Our mobile phones are not at the table and the ringers are off (though we usually keep the ringers off at home in the evenings anyway). If our landline phone rings during a meal, we ignore it. The 45 to 60 minutes we take for a family meal and cleanup is worth doing unplugged.

• Engage in conversation at the table. Part of the joy of cooking, good food and a shared meal is the conversations. Listen and learn. When our family sits down together, we almost always ask these key questions: What was the best part of your day? What was the worst part of your day? What is one thing you can improve on? Anika, who's eight, always likes to ask, "What did you have for lunch today?" We can all share in each other's positives and negatives as well as listen and learn during a family meal. It's amazing how the hustle and bustle can come to a halt during a conversation at a meal.

I asked Hunter, who is in college 240 miles from home, about his favorite memories of family meals growing up. He replied: "Family meals are a time when we always put aside whatever we have going on in our separate lives and really enjoy each other. Plus the food is good, so that helps."

Food Marketing Institute research and the national family meals month website highlights kids who take part in family meals set healthy habits, are less likely to be overweight, do well in school, get into trouble less often and have better mental health and family relationships.

As an adult, that research rings true for me. In the midst of my messy house and full calendar, I can make time for sharing meals with my family. While my home cooking doesn't have the power to create world peace, it can bring peace in our home and help create an environment for success, which makes the prep and cleanup worth the effort.

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