School, work, working out, games, practices, lessons, appointments, meetings . . . in many families, a typical day includes a combination of the above multiplied by the number of people in the family. It’s easy to understand why dinner for on-the-go families often becomes a grab-and-go affair. While enjoying a family dinner together requires planning and may mean rescheduling or even missing certain activities, there’s plenty of research that shows the benefits of family mealtime outweigh any sacrifices or inconveniences needed to make it happen.

Families Who Eat Together Have Healthier and Smarter Kids

As a parent, you obviously want your kids to thrive. Making time for a family dinner is one way to position your kids for success.

A study published on ResearchGate.net concluded that family dinners are beneficial to children’s education. Harvard researcher, Dr. Catherine Snow, surveyed families who regularly share meals together and concludes that children’s vocabularies and language skills improve more from participating in mealtime conversations than from reading together with their parents. “Participation in dinner table conversations offers children opportunities to acquire vocabulary, practice producing and understanding stories and explanations, acquire general knowledge, and learn how to talk in culturally appropriate ways,” she notes in the study results.

Another study concluded that kids who enjoyed family dinners had fewer behavioral problems. Family dinners, concludes another study published in JAMA Pediatrics, can even help protect adolescents from the harmful effects of cyberbullying. Additional research links frequent family meals with a significantly reduced incidence of using marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol among teens.

And, students who enjoy family dinners make better grades according to researchers at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Within their study group, 20 percent of teens who ate with their families five or more times a week earned As in school, compared to 12 percent of teens who ate with their families two or fewer times a week.

How to Fit Family Dinners into Your Busy Schedule

It’s pretty clear that family dinners are beneficial. What’s usually less clear is how to make time for them. The key is planning and time management. The first step is to look at everyone’s afternoon and evening schedule for the week and identify five days that look most promising for getting everyone together at dinner. (The Family Dinner Project recommends aiming for five shared meals per week to reap the greatest rewards.)

The second step is to plan ahead. Sketch out a “menu” for the week so you can shop for ingredients in advance or even cook in advance. You might decide to spend part of your weekend preparing one or more meals in advance for later in the week (casseroles, soups, etc.). Or, you might become a master of slow-cooker one-pot wonders that simmer all day and are ready when you and your family are. Another option is to divide and conquer and get the kids involved in meal preparation, setting the table, doing the dishes, etc.

The true value of family dinners is that they encourage communication and dialogue, which creates stronger familial bonds. The food is secondary to the conversation! Focus less on what you eat and more on giving your undivided attention to your kids (and demanding they do the same). Your ultimate family dinner vision may include a well-balanced, home-cooked, made-from-scratch meal, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the only way to fit in family mealtime is by ordering takeout or delivery or heating up a frozen pizza. In a pinch, that’s OK.

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