How to Make the Most Out of Family Dinnertime

Best ways to connect with kids at mealtimes

Cooking together is a great way to connect at family meal time. Getty Images/andresr

If someone told you that you can do something that's pretty simple and routine that has been linked to better physical, social, and emotional development in kids and may help protect kids against things parents dread like drug or alcohol use, teen pregnancy, or depression, among other health and development benefits, wouldn't you give it a try? Luckily, that thing parents can do is something as easy as having dinner with your kids on a regular basis.

But many families today are juggling busy work schedules, housework, and after-school activities, which means setting aside time in the evenings--often the busiest time for families--to cook dinner and sit down together to eat can be challenging. And when we do find the time, we may still be checking email, texting, or quickly gobbling down dinner as kids try to finish up homework.

If your family's dinnertime is more hectic hurrying than relaxed bonding, consider using some strategies to work around busy schedules and making dinnertime more fun. And when you do finally find the time to sit together around the table (or sit down to a snack at your kid's soccer game or talk over breakfast-on-the-go in the car), try these tips for making the most out of family mealtime and connecting with your kids from Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that champions the benefits of family dinners works to give families the tools and information to make family meals a regular part of their lives.

Start small and find windows of time

Can't find the time for dinner every night? "Try for a couple of nights a week," says Barendsen. Some other potential times to talk are over breakfast or in the car, or even over a quick snack or sandwiches at your child's after-school activity.

Choose meals that are quick to assemble and cook ahead of time

Easy-to-freeze foods, like stews, mac 'n cheese, casseroles, and lasagna, are a busy family's best friend.

Cook some extra on the weekends and freeze, then thaw and serve with some steamed veggies during the week. And healthy quick and easy dinners, like some guac and tortillas filled with beans and rice and cheese, are yummy and fast lifesavers on busy weeknights.

Turn off the TV

"Having dinner together does not mean fast food in front of the TV, with kids in one room and parents in front of another TV," says Barendsen. If you do choose to combine family movie night or a TV show with dinner, do it once in a while and try to use the movie or show to spark conversations about important topics like kids and bullying or what healthy body image is. The important thing is to connect and talk, not stare at a screen.

Put away the phones

Speaking of screens, ask your kids to put away their phones before coming to the table. (You can designate an area on a table or counter as the cell phone area, and have everyone put their phones there.) And be sure you follow the rule, too, says Barendsen. In fact, it's even more important for parents to follow this rule not only because kids look to us as role models for their own behavior but because research shows that they are very aware that we are not focusing on them when we are distracted by things like phones and computers.

Make dinnertime fun

Let kids choose music and go shopping for food together. "On the weekends, flip through cookbooks together and let them choose recipes," says Barendsen. "Kids appreciate it when the roles are flipped." Choose some nice music for dinner and cleanup time, and play silly games or just talk--about books, friends, their day--whatever topics interest you and your kids. (For more ideas on how to make dinnertime something the whole family will look forward to, read, "7 Ways to Make Family Mealtime Fun.")

Really listen

Family mealtime is a unique opportunity to connect with kids because children tend to share things while you're doing other activities.

If you've ever asked your child, "How was school today?" chances are the answer will be something like, "Fine." But when you're doing routine things together, like sharing a meal, your child will be more likely to share something that's on his mind. Use this time to get closer to your child, and share something about yourself and your day.

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