Today's families are spread very thin. Between soccer games and track practice, jobs and choir rehearsal, and the many meetings, appointments, homework assignments and work responsibilities, parents and children are, quite simply, busy. It can be challenging to find the time to be together and connect as a family, but this time is so valuable. Families should ensure spending time together is built into their weekly schedule. And since we all have to eat, why not make it a point for family time to be spent sharing a meal together?

It is often heard that family meals are important for children's development and family dynamics, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The vast benefits to families eating meals together are astounding. Here are just a few:

  • Lower risk for eating disorders: A study of over 13,000 preadolescents and adolescents found that female youth who ate dinner with their family members most days or every day of the week were less likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors than those who never or rarely engaged in family mealtimes. Researchers suggest that family dinners may protect against eating disorders because eating meals together may encourage regular meal consumption. They also propose that eating meals together enhances the parent-child relationship and fosters open communication.
  • Greater nutritional balance in meals: Project EAT, a study that investigated the factors that influence adolescents' eating behaviors, found that family meals were associated with improved intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, protein, iron, fiber and vitamins A, C, E, B-6 and folate.
  • Stronger family communication: Family mealtimes give parents the chance to ask about their children’s days at school. This time provides an opportunity for families to brainstorm together to solve problems that may have arisen during the school day. A study by the Kraft Company found that youth who eat meals with their families experience enhanced family communication and a stronger sense of identity and belonging. Additionally, having meals with the family may also improve an adolescent's coping skills because they are able to talk to their parents about the issue.
  • Better grades in school: A study by Dr. Catherine Snow at Harvard University found that conversations around the family table increase children's vocabulary, which leads to improved reading ability. Greater reading skills lead to better performance in all subjects.
  • Less likelihood of illegal substance use by teens: Teenagers who engage in regular family meals are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.

Convinced of the benefits, but still think it is near impossible for your family to find time to sit down to dinner together each night? Well, you're not alone! With some creativity, your family can reap the benefits of family meal times too. Here are some tips:

  • Can't schedule dinner for everyone to be home together? No problem. Wake up 15 minutes earlier in the morning and sit down to a family breakfast a few days each week.
  • Enjoy a family meal out a restaurant in between games, rehearsals and appointments.
  • Skip the cooking part to save time and sit down to cold cuts and your favorite salad for sandwich night.
  • Be realistic. Many families today can't fit seven days of meals a week into their schedule, so figure out what you can do. Perhaps three or four is reasonable for your family. Schedule those meals and stick to it as best you can.

Kristen Snow wrote this post for Together Counts on behalf of A Chance to Heal (ACTH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of eating disorders. Prior to ACTH, Kristen worked for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, fostering her commitment to enhance the lives of youth. She currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband and 3-year-old son.