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Expat family time: Tips for stress-free meals

Living abroad with family can cause upheaval, making dinner time an enjoyable time can help with settling in 

Living in a foreign country with your family usually offers unforgettable memories to last a lifetime. But it can also interfere with the type of ‘normal’ experiences considered important, such as family meals. Between assignments with irregular or long hours and family members’ school and activity schedules, you might find it hard to make daily meals together a priority. And ensuring you and your family have a balanced diet abroad can pose a separate challenge.

Counsellors say that the moments you spend together truly connecting — even if they’re brief or not on the traditional meal clock — count as much as the sustenance. Here are a few suggestions for ways to adapt your expectations and habits while preserving family time.

Make meal prep a family affair

No matter where you live, you’ll occasionally feel overwhelmed with all that needs to be done to get a meal on the table. When faced with limited time, many parents feel it’s faster to do everything themselves. Instead of going for efficiency, though, try involving your kids MORE.

Taking them on a trip to the produce market or boulangerie, for example, gives them more opportunities to interact with local merchants and experience the sights and smells of their new community. Asking them to set the table for dinner right after breakfast cuts the need for last-minute scrambling. And offering for them to take a turn with the salad spinner or arrange veggies on a tray gives them both a sense of responsibility and the chance to be creative. Side bonus: anecdotal evidence shows that kids are more likely to eat food they’ve had a hand in preparing or growing themselves!

Cut corners in healthy ways

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 ‘Modern Families Index’, about three-quarters of the parents surveyed said they rely on pre-made meals occasionally or frequently to feed their families. If you find yourself bringing home take-away dinners or serving up heat-and-eat dishes more often than you’d like, you can at least know that you’re not alone.

One way to shave meal prep time without sacrificing healthy ingredients is to cook a casserole from scratch on the weekend and freeze it for reheating during the week. You can use this same strategy to rinse, cut and store fresh fruits and vegetables for packing snacks and lunches. Or consider picking up a fully cooked rotisserie chicken and making your own quick side dishes.

Avoid being the ‘food police’

Picky eaters, veggie haters and kids with quirky food habits are more common than you might think. Today’s pediatricians advise parents to look at the larger picture when it comes to nutrition. Is your child eating a variety of foods over a few days’ time? (One way to increase the odds of that is by offering them a range of healthy snacks like these to counteract less-than-stellar eating at regular meal times.) If so, they recommend not monitoring every bite that goes into her mouth.

That said, disordered eating can become a problem if your child loses a significant amount of weight in a short time, or if you see any outward signs of health issues. If you are concerned your child might be developing an eating disorder, you should discuss it with your pediatrician right away. Otherwise, try to focus family meal time on the conversation and less on the exact amount or type of food your kids are eating.

Switch things up

Just as sticking to routines is important, breaking out from them once in a while can be an enjoyable way to add a little novelty and excitement to family life abroad. Take your kids to a night market for street food and impromptu entertainment. Or pop on the train to a local university or hospital that has a cafeteria open to the public. With a simple bag and blanket by your side, you can pick up some fresh produce, local meats and cheeses on your way to a nearby park for a ready-made family picnic (yes, even at night if it’s considered a well-populated, safe area!).

Find family time alternatives

Let’s face it — for most families, there will be nights when different schedules prevent everyone from being able to sit down for the main meal at the same time. If you need to feed your kids early and will be eating later with someone else, it’s nice to actually sit at the table with them and give them your full focus for 15 minutes. Or snuggle together under a blanket while enjoying a light before-bed snack.

Even when there’s hardly a spare moment, make the most of the time you DO have together. Instead of checking email on the train while your children get immersed in video games, play ‘I spy’ or challenge them to a visual scavenger hunt. Make up a silly song together on your way to the market. Whatever you can do to ensure your kids have some of your undivided attention each day will stick with them long after any one meal has been eaten.

At Aetna International, we make managing family health and travels easier so our members can focus on what matters most to them.

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