Sure, it can be stressful getting food on the table, and my eight-year-old sometimes complains about the stir-fry while my three-year-old smears it on his face. But family dinner is often the best part of my day, and research suggests it benefits my kids’ social, emotional and cognitive development. Those moments are just as important as the fun ones, because they give us a chance to teach table manners, flexibility and gratitude. During family meals, we can slow the pace of our hectic lives and focus on the people we care about most.

Family meals might sound impossible to pull off, but they are doable if you think creatively to fit your own family’s needs. They don’t have to happen every day, involve hours of fancy cooking, or even occur at dinnertime.

If you’re not convinced family meals are worth the effort, consider the research. Children and teens who eat with their families three or more times per week have healthier eating habits, are less likely to be obese, and are less likely to develop eating disorders. Adolescents who eat with their families do better in school, have lower levels of depression, are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and report more and better communication with their parents. For young kids, family meals provide great opportunities for back-and-forth conversations that help them develop language and literacy skills.

The biggest challenge to family meals is, of course, scheduling. Many of us work long hours or unpredictable shifts. Some of us have kids who go to bed very early or teenagers who have homework, part-time jobs or extracurricular activities. Here are some tips to make family meals feasible and fun:

  • Find a time that works for your family. If you are most likely to have time together in the morning, the Family Breakfast Project has some ideas to make the most of the early hours — even if you only have seven minutes together. A friend who has three children of widely varying ages finds flexibility in the evening. With a one- or two-hour window for dinner a few times per week, the children join the parents and leave as their schedules allow.
  • Plan meals in advance and have ingredients on hand to save time and stress. One-pot recipes can limit prep and cleanup time. (And yes, pizza night counts once in a while, as long as you sit down and eat it together!)
  • Make mealtimes phone-free. If you have to take a call or read a text, explain why it’s important (for example, “I need to know what time Grandpa’s plane is landing tonight.”)
  • Turn the TV off except on special occasions like family movie night or The Olympics. Common Sense Media has great ideas to help you make #devicefreedinner a reality.
  • Sit and enjoy — focus on being present with one another. Avoid getting up and down — it helps if you make kids responsible for their own needs (like getting an extra napkin).

If your child has trouble sitting through a meal, you’re not alone. Be patient, but seize the opportunity to help her practice. The earlier you set up the expectation, the better. As soon as your baby can sit in a high chair (or even when she’s still in your lap), have her join you at the dinner table so she sees mealtime as a social time. Even if your kids eat earlier than you and your partner, you can still sit with them, talk and munch on a few carrots or drink a cup of tea.

If you have an older child who has trouble sitting, make sure you are including her in the conversation and giving her a chance to talk about things that interest her. If you have a very physically active child, it can help to give him a textured cushion or an elastic band on the bottom of the chair to bounce with his foot.

Stumped on what to talk about during meals? The Family Dinner Project has fun and interesting conversation starters and games to get you going. Our family loves to share knock-knock jokes and one-liners. Even two or three questions about everyone’s day can really get the ball rolling and help you connect.

Family meals work best when you make them your own. There are no rules, so experiment and have fun. Bon Appetit!

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