The picture of a comfortable family seated around the table having a leisurely dinner seems a quaint Norman Rockwell scene that these days can be far from reality.
Work schedules, after-school activities, sports practices, kids' jobs and volunteer work all seem to conspire against the institution of the family dinner. Even if everyone is home, there's the challenge of getting a half-way appetizing meal on the table at the end of a tiring workday.
Yet, the benefits of having the family eat together are far-reaching.
Teenagers who eat dinner with their families five times or more a week do better in school and are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than children who do so twice a week or less, according to research conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Younger children benefit from family dinners, too. For one thing, they have a better vocabulary, thanks to the exposure to more grown-up conversations, says Martha Marino, a dietitian for the Washington State Dairy Council and a member of the Nutrition Education Network of Washington.
There are also nutritional benefits. Kids who eat with their families frequently eat healthier food — more fruits and vegetables, more dairy products — than children who eat with their families less frequently. And they take those healthy eating habits with them when they leave the house. Research shows that children who eat with their families make healthier food choices when eating out with their peers, according to Marino. They're more likely to eat breakfast, even when a parent is not there forcing them to.
Whether or not a family has dinner together is also a key measure of how well it functions. Pediatricians frequently ask families to tell them about meal times. "It's a marker," says Marino. "If a parent is organized enough to have family meals on a regular basis, that says a lot about having order in the home."
Convince Your Teenager
There are plenty of time-saving tricks for making a meal (see our "tips" below), but it can still be work getting everyone around the table willingly.
"Like when your 16-year-old just lays his head on his plate," says Susan Smith, who lives in the suburbs of Kansas City. Her older son Ben, now 17, had no desire to join his parents and 14-year-old brother Nick for meals.
"This was at the 'I-won't-eat-dinner-with-you' stage," Smith says. "It had nothing to do with practice or homework. He was starting to be a teenager. He'd just gotten his driver's license and was trying to set his own schedule and rules."
Susan and her husband, Brian, simply insisted that Ben come to the dinner table.
Looking back, Ben says that dinner with the family just seemed to take time away from things he wanted to do, like go out to eat with his own friends. So he'd come to dinner "all ticked off." But today he sees regular family dinners as a way of strengthening family ties.
"I think it's really good if it works out, if everybody's willing to be positive," he says, adding that he's had some excellent conversations with the rest of his family at the table. And he can see why studies show that kids who have dinner regularly with their families do better at school and are less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
"You know if I'm sitting at the dinner table they're going to ask me, 'How'd you do at school today,'" he says. "You don't really want to tell them, 'Oh, I failed three tests.' "