It's not easy juggling work, school and play schedules. But between the meetings, band concerts and Little League games, it's important that you set aside time each week to get together for family meals.
"Oftentimes it's underappreciated how important family meals are," says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, registered dietitian and former Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman. "Family meals are a great time to teach kids about good nutrition and good manners. They also provide a time for bonding and a time to create family memories."
In fact, the academy says that when families eat dinner together regularly, all members of the family can benefit.
And if evening schedules make dining together difficult, the family meal you share regularly doesn't have to be dinner. You can start the day together with a family breakfast or have leisurely family lunches on the weekend.
"Whatever works best for your family," Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says.
A good time for all
It's no secret that children mimic the behavior of their parents. And there's no better time to model good behaviors for your children than at a family meal.
"Parents need to remember that children learn by watching them," Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says. "Eating together as a family is a great way to reinforce good nutritional habits and table manners."
At family meals, you can teach your children to make smart choices and eat nutritious foods. You can also introduce kids to new foods, develop regular meal patterns and share quality time as a family.
And research shows that teens who eat regularly with their families are less likely to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.
The academy says family meals can also help:
Open lines of communication. Eating together provides a good opportunity for family members to share stories and ideas.
Bolster kids' self-confidence. Research shows that kids who eat regularly with their families feel more stable and secure than kids with no regular family meal routine.
Reinforce table manners. Family mealtime is a great place to practice everything from using a napkin properly to clever ways to strike up a conversation.
Improve school performance. According to parenting and health experts, eating and talking together helps boost academic performance as well as prevent behavior problems at school.
Strengthen family bonds. Eating together gives all family members the opportunity to provide encouragement to one another.
Family dining tips
Even if you want to have regular family meals, it can be difficult to find the time to get everyone together—not to mention the time to cook. But there are steps you can take to make the most of the time you do have.
"It's not a bad idea to prepare meals ahead of time," Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says. "Then you can spend time with your family eating slowly. It's better to spend your time eating instead of preparing."
You can also turn to take-out foods if you're in a major time crunch, though they may not be as nutritious as home-cooked meals.
"Try not to rely on takeout," Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says. "But if for one night every week it will guarantee a calm family meal, then make it takeout."
Here are some other tips that can help you get your family together for meals:
Set a time. Pull out a calendar and get family members to commit to dates and times for family meals.
Plan a menu. Talk about what your family would like to eat in the coming week. Get input from all family members—including kids—on meals.
Keep it simple. If you're in a hurry, use prepackaged sauces and salads or create a buffet of leftovers.
Share the load. Give each family member a task. Adults can put together the entrées, older kids can make a salad and young children can set the table.
Tune out distractions. Turn off the television, and set your phone on silent.
Take your time. Try to wait at the table until all family members are done eating. Kids often take longer than adults to eat.
Serve healthy foods. When you do get the family together, be sure to prepare healthy, balanced meals. Try to include low-fat or nonfat dairy products and plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
Getting your family together for a meal every day may not be realistic. But making family meals a priority in your home is definitely a good idea.
"Ideally, it's best to have at least one meal together on as many days as possible," Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo says. "And when you do have family meals, you need to make the family, conversation and food the priorities."