Families are busier than ever before across the country.

Jam packed itineraries that are filled with sports practices, after-school programs, work schedules, religious events, and other activities make it challenging for families to come together for a meal. Yet proven research shows that families who eat together regularly have happier and healthier children, and better students in school.

Family meals provide a sense of unity and create a family identity. Eating meals together becomes a tool for carrying on valued family traditions, such as having a particularly favorite dish on someone’s birthday or going to a favorite place to eat together on special occasions. Eating together gives the opportunity to share the values of a family from one generation to the next. Family meals are a wonderful way for children to learn from parents and grandparents about their cultural and ethnic heritage, as differing foods can help show cultural traditions and customs. My own family is considered a multi-cultural family and I try to incorporate dishes that represent our various heritages. With my husband’s Irish and European background and my Puerto Rican, Cuban and Italian descent, I try to incorporate traditional ethnic dishes to help open up dialogue about cultures and family history.

Being a social media and tech gadget family, it is a rule in our home that our family dinners be a tech-free zone. We strive for our mealtime to be free from distractions to create an environment where we can all speak freely about the day’s occurrences and connect with one another. It is a designated time away from electronics, cell phones, gaming systems and anything that can cause a distraction.

The time talking to each other can be a time of enjoyment, i.e., sharing stories, telling jokes and a time to express thoughts in a relaxed and safe atmosphere of the home. Eating together as a family does take time to coordinate and plan. Teaching children the enjoyment of cooking and having them involved in mealtime preparation develops skills they can use for a lifetime. Children helping to create meals and then sharing those meals with friends and neighbors helps to build a strong sense of community and giving to others.

When trying to create a family dinner routine, parents often want to have healthy meal options. However, when trying to create a healthy meal, especially with young children, undoubtedly there will be a child (or children) that will shake their head and turn up their nose at the sight of Brussels sprouts.

The following are helpful tips from leading experts in children's nutrition:

1. Stick to the routine. Serve meals at about the same time every day. Nix juice, milk and snacks for at least one hour before meals. If your child comes to the table hungry, he or she may be more motivated to eat.

2. Make it fun. Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Some suggestions to enhance foods for young children:

· Dip it. Young children think that immersing foods in a tasty dip is pure fun (and delightfully messy). Some possibilities to dip into: cottage cheese or tofu dip; cream cheese; fruit juice-sweetened preserves; guacamole; peanut butter, thinly spread; pureed fruits or vegetables; yogurt. These types of dips serve equally well as spreads on apple or pear slices, bell-pepper strips, rice cakes, bagels, toast, or other nutritious platforms.

· Top it. Putting nutritious, familiar favorites on top of new and less-desirable foods is a way to broaden a family menu. Favorite toppings are yogurt, cream cheese, melted cheese, guacamole, tomato sauce, applesauce, and peanut butter.

· Drink it. Make a smoothie together. Milk and fruit along with supplements such as juice, egg powder, wheat germ, yogurt, honey and peanut butter can be the basis of very healthy meals. Tampico has a variety of tropical and fruit flavored juices and products that are a great addition during meal time for children and the entire family.

· Cut it up. How much a child will eat often depends on how you cut it. Cut sandwiches, pancakes, waffles, and pizza into various shapes using cookie cutters.

· Package it. Appearance is important. For something new and different, why not use your child’s own toy plates for dishing out a snack?

3. Recruit your child’s help. At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Do not buy anything that you do not want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter, or set the table.

4. Set a good example. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit.

5. Be sneaky. Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.

6. Minimize distractions. Turn off the television during meals and no gadgets at the table.

7. Don’t be a short order cook. Preparing a separate meal for a child after they reject the original meal may encourage a child’s picky eating. Keep serving a child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.

Remember, perfection is not the focus of meal time; its spending quality time with your family.