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If it seems like your family gets busier and busier every year, you’re not alone. Carving out time for family dinners is more important than eve. And we have the tips you need to reignite a routine that benefits everyone—adults and kids alike!

Researchers have studied the benefits of regular family meals together for decades. Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and professor at Harvard Medical School, says the results are clear: Kids who eat dinner with their family do better academically, socially, emotionally, and physically than their peers. Furthermore, kids actually like eating with the family. Up to 80% of teens report they’d rather eat as a family than with friends or alone. Family dinners tend to be healthier than what kids would choose while out with friends. Plus, the casual time spent together creates the expectation that everyone has a safe place to share and be heard. As your kids get older, that expectation will allow them to open up about problems and avoid many destructive behaviors, like smoking and using drugs.

Tips for Making Family Dinners Easier

If you’d like to sit around the table as a family more often, but you find there are too many obstacles in the way, you’re not alone. With many parents working varied hours, everyone glued to their phones, and the pressure to be active in extra-curricular activities, it can feel overwhelming to fit in a dinner that people actually want to attend. But with a bit of work and creativity, you can re-introduce the family dinner to your home.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Dinner!

The idea of “family dinner” doesn’t rely on the meal being dinner. Any time a core group of your family can get together and share a meal or snack is a perfect opportunity. Sometimes breakfast is the time of day when everyone is free, so make “family cereal” something to look forward to. Similarly, don’t restrict yourself to a certain amount of time—even 20 minutes a few times a week is enough to make a difference.

Avoid Difficult Topics

Even though family mealtime is the best opportunity to talk with your kids, it’s not a great time to tackle those challenging topics. When kids feel like they’re walking into the interrogation room, they’re less likely to open up and share. So, save anything that might cause anger or conflict for a one-on-one conversation at a different time. Instead, develop camaraderie by telling jokes, learning about each other, and keeping things light. 

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Home Cooking Isn’t Required

While many of the benefits of family meals do come from the food quality, don’t skip the ritual just because you don’t have time or ingredients for a home-cooked meal. Order pizza or even head to the restaurant together. If you’d like to make sure that you have options for cooking at home on hand, fresh fruits and vegetables combined with whole-grain pasta make a quick and easy weeknight meal. You can also prep slow cooker meals ahead of time, freeze, and throw one in as you head out to work each morning.

Share Responsibilities

If the pressure of getting family dinner on the table is too much, don’t be afraid to share responsibilities. In fact, the preparation component of a meal can even start the family bonding before anyone takes a bite. The littlest kids can set the table while older ones help cook. Share the meal planning by having the kids each pick one of the dinner menus that week.

Make it Fun

Playing games during dinner is a wonderful way to get the conversation started and make it an experience rather than a task. If you’ve ever asked your kids how their day was and gotten “fine” in return, you know it can take a lot to get them talking. Conversation prompts and questions are a fun way to take the pressure off. Try asking about seemingly random and silly things as a way to learn about everyone’s day: “Who did something with the color orange today? Who did anything involving trees?” You’ll be surprised by the creative answers and the stories they lead to! For more ideas, you can get a year’s worth of games from The Family Dinner Project if you need inspiration!

Think Outside the Box

Don’t shy away from clever tactics if you’re having trouble getting everyone around the table. Move your “table” to the living room floor and have a picnic instead. Have your kids curate a playlist for the meal, and laugh as the adults try to sing along. Make dinner from a “blind ingredient grab” where everyone picks one thing from the pantry with their eyes closed. The sky’s the limit for creativity, and sometimes all you need is one great night to kickstart a new routine.

Start small and set a reasonable goal for this week—two nights a week. Your routine will only improve from there!