family gathering around the dinner table

On the Menu: Family Dinner

How eating together makes families stronger and happier.

The secret ingredient to a great family dinner? Good food is nice. Great conversation is even better. And togetherness is best of all. "For us, it's a time to sit and share," says Tiffany Enck, a mother of four who lives in Manheim, Pennsylvania. "It lets the kids know that our family is important and they're a part of it. Our days are so busy with school and sports and activities, but dinner is a special time every day that says our family is here for one another."

Tiffany is on to something. The benefits of families eating together are well documented by researchers, notes Anne VanBeber, PhD, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "A stronger bond between parents and children is formed, and children flourish when families practice consistent mealtime rituals," she says. "Children are happier, more relaxed, less stressed, and better able to deal with life's difficulties."

National surveys show, however, that only about a third of families eat meals together regularly, and the frequency declines as children move into their teen years. VanBeber and other researchers blame lack of time, scheduling conflicts, the hypnotic intrusion of television, and the fact that fewer people even bother to cook at home.

You can reverse that trend at your house. "Family dinners don't have to take place every night," says VanBeber. "Nor do they need extensive planning." If you and your clan aren't in the habit of dining together, here are some tips to bring you to the table at the same time. 

Be flexible
It's still a family dinner if you're together, no matter where you are—at home, at the athletic field, at your local Panera Bread® bakery-cafe. Aim for three or four family meals a week—and if breakfast is more convenient, plan to gather in the morning a few times a week. 

Unplug
Turn off the television, the computer, and the phone. The same goes for any reading material. Send the signal to your family that your meal together is more important than outside interferences. 

Establish a ritual
Light a candle (little kids especially love this), give thanks, tell a story, ask everyone at the table to share their day's top moment—whatever works for your family. Rituals help families develop an identity, bind them together, and provide constancy and security in an uncertain world. 

Model your best behavior
Family dinner is a perfect time for teaching kids social skills, like saying "Please" and "Thank you," and listening attentively while others are speaking. "Postpone negative comments during dinner, and avoid lecturing and scolding," advises VanBeber. "Reward good manners and behavior with positive comments." 

Communicate
Kitchen tables are the best places for good conversation—but don't wait for your kids to enthrall you with fascinating stories of their day. "We offer lots of prompts," says Tiffany. "What silly thing happened at school today? What was your teacher wearing? One response leads to another, and before you know it, you've got a discussion going."

If your kids are older, asking them personal questions may get you nowhere, but chances are they'd love the opportunity to share their thoughts about current events, celebrity gossip, and even politics. The dinner table is a great place to discover what your children are really thinking and feeling.