Q. We try to sit down to a family dinner every night, but our schedules are so crazy it rarely happens. How can I get the whole family together?

A. There’s no denying that sticking to a regular family dinner schedule is tough, with parents balancing work schedules with their children’s after-school activities—but it’s worth the effort, says William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. When Doherty’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Adolescent Health and Development surveyed 4,746 middle school and high school students for Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), they found that the kids who sat down to meals most often with their families—seven or more times weekly—tended to have higher grade-point averages and were more well-adjusted in general than those who ate the fewest family meals (two or fewer per week). They were less likely to feel depressed or suicidal, to smoke cigarettes or use alcohol or marijuana. Other studies have found that children who eat regular meals with their families also eat more healthfully in general, taking in more fruits and vegetables and calcium-rich foods, fewer soft drinks and snack foods. They may also have a lower risk of disordered eating, with fewer reports of extreme weight-loss diets or binge eating in kids whose families placed a high priority on regular family meals.

Why? Family meals give parents an opportunity to model good eating habits—and to show kids what a “normal” meal might look like (unlike the French fries/hot dog/soft drink combo they might otherwise choose). And parents are better able to spot potential eating problems if they’re facing them right across the table. Mealtimes are also critical for connecting, says Doherty. “It’s one of the few opportunities families have to be together as a group, sharing in conversation,” he says.

Here are a few tips to help get you in the family dinner habit:

Keep trying. If you’re not used to regular dinners, expect some initial awkwardness. “Like exercise, the benefits will accrue only if you stick with it,” says Doherty.
Get help. Kids can help plan, cook, serve and clean up after meals; they’ll be more game to participate if they have a stake in the meal.
Speak out. If soccer practice or a PTA meeting is scheduled during dinner time, ask if it can be changed. “We need to be home for dinner” is a perfectly acceptable excuse.
No time to cook family dinner? Try breakfast or lunch, use take-out or go to a restaurant. What’s being served isn’t as important as the fact that you’re together.
Keep conflicts off the table. Focus more on conversation than on table manners or whether your child finishes her peas.


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