American families are busier than ever. We long for time to reconnect, regroup, and just spend some quality time together, without the gadgets, games, left overwork or stress. Americans are crying out for a relaxing conversation and time with those we love the most in the world.

Over the last decade or so, researchers have made it their mission to confirm what people have understood for ages – sharing a meal together is the best way to reconnect, feel like you’re part of a tribe, and to catch up with the people who mean the most to you. In addition to the feel-good feelings, there are many other benefits to sitting down and breaking bread together. Researchers have found that eating dinner as a family is good for your brain and your health. Statistics have shown that families who eat together regularly are less likely to experience individual mental health issues. For instance, kids who eat dinner with their parents regularly experience lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression. The children tend to have better grades in school, have better self-esteem and have better social skills and increased empathy for others.

A conversation over dinner is a great way to reinforce good behavior and to help your child/children boost their vocabulary with stories told around the table. We kid you not. (Excuse the pun.) Kids emulate adults. That’s a given fact. As they watch the adults interact, they’ll copy that behavior. Make it light, positive, informative or anything in between. As an added bonus, your children eat better when they eat with the family. Studies have shown that family meals lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.

If we told you that children reap the most benefits when families eat dinner together five nights a week, would that make you rethink your question? The bottom line is there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. Do what works for your family, but keep in mind that the goal is to eat some meals together. And the best part? It doesn’t have to just be dinner. If that doesn’t work for your schedule, eat breakfast or lunch together instead. Whichever meal you choose, make it count. Start a conversation, enjoy each other’s company, and build a long-lasting tradition your children will thank you for later.

How do you find the time in this busy world?

No problem. This isn’t about making an elaborate meal (although there’s nothing wrong with that). It’s about carving out time to look each other in the eye, share a few laughs, discuss what’s important to you. Even if that means you have to cook and freeze your meal on the weekend or grab takeout, it’s not what you eat that matters. It’s who you sit down to enjoy a meal with. If weekdays don’t work for you, choose a weekend day. Search for recipes that can be made in 15 minutes or less. The sky is the limit.

But what if I don’t cook?

Here are a few tips to get you going in the right direction:
  • Don’t eat in front of the television. It defeats the purpose of gathering the family around for a meal.
  • Encourage healthy food choices. Indulging every once in a while is fine, but don’t overdo it.
  • Have a plan. Do you want to cook together? Clean up together? Make it a family affair.
  • Get your family involved in the meal planning. Let the kids decide what to eat sometimes. They’ll love it!
  • Don’t take things too seriously. Let the conversation flow. If there are tough subjects you want to discuss, don’t blindside your children. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t pressure or force your child to speak. Let them get used to the idea. The easier you make it for everyone involved, the easier it will be for you.

By Sarah Wester