It's unanimous: Experts agree that frequent family dinners keep the lines of communication open between parents and kids, and create feel-good connectedness. Put simply, just the act of being there shows where your crew's priorities are. And solid statistics prove that breaking bread together reduces the risk of kids abusing drugs and results in fewer eating disorders among girls. It all makes perfect sense, but we wanted to know more. So we partnered with the pasta pros at Barilla to survey moms, dads, and kids ages 8 to 18 about sharing mealtime. The findings provide food for thought:
—61 percent of kids say their parents are more relaxed and fun to be around when they all have dinner together.
—40 percent of respondents said cell phones were NOT ALLOWED at the last family dinner they enjoyed.
—70 percent of kids agreed: "I appreciate my parents more when we take time to share a meal together."
—87 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: "When my family eats dinner together, I really feel I'm doing the right thing as a parent."
True or False? As kids get into the teen years, they're less willing to be part of family dinners.
Answer: False. There was no statistically significant difference between kids 8-12 and those 13-18 when it came to ranking the relative importance of eating together at home versus engaging in other activities.
Talking the Talk
What's on the conversational agenda when everyone convenes for a meal? Parents and kids dish on the Top 5 topics:
2. Something a friend or family member did
3. An event in the news
5. A tough problem
If chitchat stalls, resist the urge to press tweens and teens about their day or their friends, says William Doherty, PhD, professor at the University of Minnesota in the department of family social science. Trying to force conversation is generally unproductive, he says. Better to let it unfold on its own. Some meals may result in more interaction than others. That's okay. Avoid overreacting if your son or daughter says something negative like "I hate math." Ask in a low-key way if there is something specifically wrong and if you can help. But don't turn dinner into a dreary lecture about effort and stick-to-itiveness (Yawn.) Last but not least, aim to keep everyone in the discussion loop. Don't veer off to problems that are really for the adults to resolve.
65 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: "My spouse and I generally feel less stressed when we eat dinner together as a family."
With just shy of two-thirds of moms and dads saying that everyone eating together makes them feel more centered as a parent, dinner seems to be the new yoga. But to attain bliss, you need to keep it relaxed. Chew on this advice:
—Be realistic about what you can cook within a given time frame. In other words, trying to whip together a gourmet-caliber meal in a 10-minute window will only leave you aggravated. If your typical evening allows for, say, 20 minutes of prep, put together a repertoire of reliable recipes that meet your real-life criteria. The Internet (especially this site and recipe.com) is a terrific resource.
—Remember, it's not necessarily about the food. It's about the company. If there's no other option, you can connect just as well over delivery pizza as homemade whatever.
—Consider making a hearty soup or assembling lasagna or a casserole over the weekend. On a busy weeknight, just reheat and make a salad.
—If you don't have a slow cooker, consider investing in one. You can get a great model for under $50. A little effort in the morning and you're good to go that night.
—Start small, if necessary. As in, if you all currently manage to eat together only once a week, aim for twice. Then go from there.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.