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.' "
And, in general, he says, having dinner with his parents regularly is tangible evidence that they care. "You know they're watching you."
Ben even acknowledges the nutritional benefits. "It's good food," he says. "I realized lately that not a lot of people get home-cooked meals every night."
How to Do It
But even with a cooperative group, getting everyone around the table with a good meal in front of them takes planning. Susan works fulltime as one of two principals in a mortgage and real estate investment company. She gets help from the rest of the family.
Though Ben has a job, he uses his driver's license so he and Nick can do the grocery shopping, taking a list Susan provides them, and calling if they can't find an item.
"It works great," she says. "They pretty much find it all. I'm amazed."
They also pick up foods that look good to them, giving them input on dinner. And they help by setting and clearing the table and making salads.
Even though Susan enjoys cooking, she still does whatever she can to save time. The family buys pre-washed salad greens "by the ton." She spends more time preparing weekend meals and then freezes half of them to serve during the week or to use as the basis for a week-night meal.
Tips for Planning and Prepping Meals
Here are some more suggestions:
When choosing recipes, prep time is more important than overall cooking. A recipe that takes just a few minutes to put together and then simply put in the oven for 45 minutes frees you up to do something else, says Karen Cicero, food and nutrition director for Child magazine. If family members are starving, tide them over with salad or fruits and vegetables that are already prepared. Pre-washed lettuce, pre-peeled potatoes, spinach that comes in a bag that you can microwave it in, cleaned baby carrots, pre-sliced pineapples, all are timesavers for both healthy snacking and dinner.
Enlist the kids' help. "Even a 2-year-old can rip lettuce," says Cicero. "First thing you do is make sure you wash their hands." Smaller children can't use knives or work near a hot burner, but they can stir, mix and get items for you out of the cupboard.
Use slow cookers, says Peggy Katalinich, food director for Family Circle magazine. These produce meals that take little preparation time and cook a meal over a six- to eight-hour period. (They can also cook meals in less time as well and now come with a variety of time-saving programmable features). She says they fell out of vogue with food editors but not with the public, because sales have stayed steady. Gas grills are also good year round. Her husband climbs over snowdrifts at their Long Island home to grill dinner. She says grilling is a fast way to cook and also is a good way to get husbands to help with dinner.
Take-out is fine, says Katalinich, whose job meant she'd get some teasing for bringing pizza home. But a meal can be a combination of home-cooked and take-out — your chicken paired with the local deli's famed potato salad. The important thing is that the family is eating together. Fast foods from the grocery store are improving all the time, says Cicero. Frozen tortellini with pesto sauce takes eight minutes to prepare and serves a family of four a dinner rich in calcium.
Be elastic on time. Katalinich says that a family's schedule can seem to almost conspire against dinner. They often don't eat dinner until 8:30. "Just pretend you live in Spain," she says. Plus, looking at everyone's schedule on Sunday night and scheduling specific nights for family dinners helps, too.
Post a menu for the week. Have kids pick what to eat (and, even, better, prepare it) on some nights. It ties children into the idea of dinner and also can help make shopping more efficient.
At dinner time, clear the table of other clutter (homework or mail). Establish a routine for starting the meal — light a candle or say grace. Turn off the phone and TV. Keep conversations positive. Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk. And share clean-up chores. Some parents find cleaning up, when everyone has a full stomach, is a good time for communicating, says Marino.
Need inspiration? The Web is a great source. Family magazines such as Family Circle, Woman's Day, Child, Parents and others have online recipes and archives. Food magazines such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit (both at www.epicurious.com) have Web sites with recipes with five ingredients or less for week nights. You can do a Google search for a particular recipe. Sites such as Yahoo! will provide you with daily links to new recipes that fit dietary requirements you set. Visit the Quick Meals section of www.mealsmatter.org for recipes that fit various parameters such as six ingredients or less, make-ahead dishes, kid-friendly dishes, vegetarian dishes, etc.
Finally, parents need to remember that even when their children roll their eyes in anguish over parental suggestions, they still do what they see their parents do. "Whether parents realize or not, kids look up to their parents as role models," says Marino. "If kids see mom eating healthfully, they copy that."