8 reasons to make time for family dinner

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesBy Sarah Klein

Soccer practices, dance rehearsals, playdates, and other scheduling conflicts make family mealtime seem like a thing of the past. During the holidays, it gets even worse with parties, school events, and last-minute shopping trips. Suddenly, we're feeding our kids breakfast bars during the morning commute, sneaking 100-calorie packs at our desks, and grabbing dinner at the drive-thru window.

Eating meals together goes beyond the opportunity for bonding and relaxing. And despite the feeling that there's no time for such luxuries, 59% of families report eating dinner together at least five times a week-an increase from only 47% in 1998, according to the Importance of Family Dinner IV, a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

If you're finding it difficult to get together with your family at the dinner table, here's a little inspiration:

1. Kids might learn to love their veggies.
A 2000 survey found that the 9- to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber. Family dinners allow for both "discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods," says Matthew W. Gillman, MD, the survey's lead researcher and the director of the Obesity Prevention Program at the Harvard Medical School.

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2. It's the perfect setting for new foods.
Most likely, a 6-year-old is not one day going to decide she'd really like to try Brussels sprouts. Parents have to introduce new foods to children, who initially need a little guidance in making healthy choices. A family meal is the perfect opportunity for parents to expose children to different foods and expand their tastes.

In a 2003 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children were offered some pieces of sweet red pepper and asked to rate how much they liked it. Then, each day for the next eight school days, they were invited to eat as much of the pepper as they wanted. On the final day, the kids were again asked to rate how much they liked it.

By the end of the experiment, the children rated the pepper more highly and were eating more of it-even more so than another group of children who were offered a reward for eating the pepper. These results suggest that a little more exposure and a little less "You can leave the table once you finish your broccoli!" will teach kids to enjoy new foods, even if they don't like them at first.

3. You control the portions.
Americans spend more than 40% of their food budget on meals outside of the home. Eating out can be convenient but it's also caloric-portion sizes in restaurants just keep growing! The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal. Studies show that when we are presented with more food, we eat more food, possibly leading to our expanding waistlines.

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4. Healthy meals mean happy kids.
Studies have shown that kids who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, and develop an eating disorder. They are also more likely to delay sex and to report that their parents are proud of them. When a child is feeling down or depressed, family dinner can act as an intervention. This is especially true of eating disorders, says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, who has studied the impact of family meal patterns on adolescents. "If a child eats with his or her parents on a regular basis, problems will be identified earlier on," she says.

5. Family dinners help kids "just say no."

Eating family dinners at least five times a week drastically lowers a teen's chance of smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Teens who have fewer than three family dinners a week are 3.5 times more likely to have abused prescription drugs and to have used illegal drugs other than marijuana, three times more likely to have used marijuana, more than 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol, according to the CASA report "While substance abuse can strike any family, regardless of ethnicity, affluence, age, or gender, the parental engagement fostered at the dinner table can be a simple, effective tool to help prevent [it]," says Elizabeth Planet, one of the report's researchers, and the center's vice president and director of special projects.

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6. Better food, better report card.
Of teens who eat with their family fewer than three times a week, 20% get C's or lower on their report cards, according to the CASA report. Only 9% of teens who eat frequently with their families do this poorly in school. Family meals give children an opportunity to have conversations with adults, as well as to pick up on how adults are using words with each other, which may explain why family dinnertime is also thought to build a child's vocabulary.

7. Supper can be a stress reliever.
Believe it or not, if you have a demanding job, finding time to eat with your family may actually leave you feeling less stressed. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM workers and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office. (Interestingly, the effect wasn't as pronounced among dads.) Alas, the study didn't take into account the stress of rushing to get out of the office, picking up the kids, and getting a meal on the table.

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8. Put a little cash in your pocket
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In 2007, the average household spent $3,465 on meals at home, and $2,668 on meals away from home, according to the national Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you take into consideration that the $2,668 spent on meals away from home only accounts for about 30% of meals (according to historical data), that's about $8 per meal outside of the home, and only about $4.50 per each meal made in your own kitchen. You do the math!

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