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Mom, dad and child having a meal together.

Mealtimes together can be a luxury for hectic families, yet plenty of research shows that no other hour in your children’s day serves up as many emotional, psychological, and nutritional benefits. And those benefits last a lifetime.

“Researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the health of all family members,” says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. “Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of depression, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem.”

Family meals offer an opportunity to connect, while serving nutritious food and modeling healthy eating. This can lead to “healthier dietary intakes; less use of disordered eating behaviors, such as unhealthy weight-control practices; and stronger indicators of psychosocial well-being,” reports Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, professor and division head of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota and principal investigator of the Project EAT studies on teen welfare.

There isn’t a magic number for family meals, Fishel says, but the benefits accrue with every dinner. Here are four tips for better family meals:

  1. Make the commitment. Start small with one meal and one conversation, advises Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. Aim to schedule just one mealtime that works for every family member. Let everyone know and add the date to the calendar.
  2. Make it simple. Family meals don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. What is everyone’s simplest, most loved meal? Cook it and enjoy it together.
  3. Make it fun. These dinners should be a welcoming time, not a place for stress, arguments, or grilling kids about their grades. Find the joy and keep it going.
  4. Make it matter. The things you share at dinner can help your relationships endure far beyond the table, says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD.

For other smart ideas on bringing your family together for meals, recipes, and even some engaging conversation topics, check out the Family Dinner Project’s website (TheFamilyDinnerProject.org) and Fishel’s book, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

Family-Dinner Conversation Starters

Harvard’s Family Dinner Project and its cofounder, Anne Fishel, PhD, suggest trying these conversation starters to keep table talk fun and interesting. For more smart conversation ideas, turn to Fishel’s bookHome for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

Ages 2–7

  • If you joined the circus, what would your act be?
  • Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?
  • If you had superpowers, what would they be — and how would you use them to help other people?

Ages 8–13

  • What’s your favorite movie or book — and what did you like about it?
  • If you were the principal of your school, would you change anything?
  • Can you guess all of the ingredients in this dish?

Ages 14–100

  • What’s one thing that you learned today that you think I might not know?
  • Do you know how we chose your name?
  • If you had one week, a car full of gas, a cooler full of food, and your two best friends, where would you go and what would you do?

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Experience LifeLife Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine. 

Michael
Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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