GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - September is Family Meals Month and Michigan Apples can help you make your family recipes fun, nutritious and flavorful! Research suggests that having dinner together as a family at least four times a week has positive effects on child development and health. Family meals have been linked to better school performance and self-esteem, and a lower risk of obesity, substance abuse and eating disorders.

Mealtime is also a great opportunity to connect as a family and engage your children in meaningful dialogue without the distraction of technology. Conversations at the dinner table develop the vocabulary and reading ability of children, and allow every family member to talk about their day and share exciting news or a funny story. In addition, family meals also encourage healthy eating habits and gives parents a chance to model behaviors for children. Studies show family dinners increase the intake of fruits and vegetables and is linked to higher intake of protein, calcium, and some vitamins. Here are some tips for enjoying more frequent family meals:

• Cook as a family and include everyone in the preparation process.

• Experiment with new, fun recipes or add a healthy twist to a family favorite meal – like including Michigan Apples!

• Talk about how food is grown. Plan a weekend trip to the apple orchard and pick some new varieties to try in recipes. (see ideas below)

• Prep meal components on weekends (chop fruits and vegetables, cook ground meat, pre-cook rice) to cut down meal prep time during the week.

• Stock a healthy pantry with basics such as canned beans, frozen vegetables, lean meat, whole grain pasta and recipe-ready soups.

• Making double batches of recipes on the weekend and freeze one for a busy week night.

• Use small appliances that can help make mealtime easy like an electric fry pan, food processor, or a slow cooker.

Family meals may require effort in planning, but the healthy benefits to you and your family are more than worth it! We’ve provided some family-friendly slow cooker meals with Michigan Apples to get you started.

Michigan Apple BBQ Pulled Chicken

Makes 8 servings

This recipe combines chicken breasts with apple and barbecue flavors for a delicious fall dish.

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 Michigan Apples, sliced (Empire, Fuji, Gala, Macintosh, Ida Red, Jonagold, Paula Red or Rome)

1 onion, sliced

1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

½ cup reduced sodium chicken stock

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1. Add the chicken, apples and onions to the slow cooker.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the barbecue sauce, applesauce, chicken stock, cumin, chili powder, garlic, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over chicken.

3. Cook on low for 4 hours or until chicken is done.

4. Shred chicken with 2 forks and mix well.

Serve on whole grain buns with a side of broccoli slaw and a glass of low-fat milk.

Nutrition information per serving (without bun): 220 Calories; 3g Fat; 26g Carbohydrate; 23g Protein; 2g Fiber; 816mg Sodium

Recipe adapted from: www.theslenderkitchen.com

Easy Apple Breakfast Cobbler – Breakfast can also be a great time to enjoy a family meal!

Makes 4 servings.

Family mealtime can also be in the morning. This Easy Apple Breakfast Cobbler cooks overnight so the family wakes up to the smell of cinnamon and apples.

4 medium-sized Michigan Apples* cored, peeled and sliced

¼ cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon trans-fat free spread, or butter, melted

2 cups low-fat granola cereal

1. Place apples in a crock pot and stir in honey and cinnamon. Top apple mixture with granola and drizzle with butter or margarine.

2. Cover and cook on low 7-9 hours or on high 2-3 hours.

3. Serve warm and top with low-fat milk or vanilla yogurt if desired.

*Try Cortland, Gala, Ida Red, Jonathan, Northern Spy, Rome, Braeburn, McIntosh or Empire

Nutrition information per serving: 395 Calories; 7g Fat; 83g Carbohydrate; 5g Protein; 8g Fiber; 175mg Sodium

Courtesy: Shari Steinbach, MS RDN