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How to make family meals happier

Elaina is a Phoenix-based freelance writer, blogger and co-founder of the Kidlee baby book app. Check out her blog, Fun Finds For Mom, for product reviews, recipes and fun activities for moms and kids.

Family quality time

Between Little League games, piano lessons and late nights at the office, it isn't always easy to gather the family for dinner. And when you do gather together, it's not always a happy affair. What's a well-meaning mom to do?

Benefits of the family dinner

Multiple studies show the positive effect of coming together for family mealtime. Kids with families who dine together have better vocabularies and higher test scores. They're also less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. Yes, the benefits of family togetherness during supper are significant. So how can you start making family dinners work with your family?

Start small

Don't think of family mealtime as an "all or nothing" proposition. Just because conflicting schedules make evening togetherness difficult, it can be done. Get out the calendars and choose one or two nights each week when all family members can meet around the table.

Be flexible

Be flexible when it comes to scheduling mealtimes. Lisa James says her family of hockey-playing, horseback-riding teenagers often gather for family dinner at 7:45 or 8:00 p.m. (later than all their friends) so she allows snacks until 6 p.m.

Get happy

Now you're all gathered around the table and ready to dig in. But what if your family gatherings are anything but happy? Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families suggests rethinking the family dinner. First, he says the family meal doesn't always have to happen during the dinner hour. If breakfast is more convenient, make that the time to gather together for family time. He also suggests focusing more on the conversation than the food. "In many ways, what you talk about during shared mealtime (or any time) is more important than what you eat."

Make it easy

Of all the reasons to serve easy dinners, family happiness ranks right up there. Keep it simple so you can spend less time cooking and more time enjoying family time. Whip up a bunch of make-ahead meals and load your freezer with easy heat-and-eat dinners.

Use conversation starters

If conversation isn't flowing freely, check out the list of family conversation starters at TheFamilyDinnerProject.org. They're organized by age group (ages 2-7, ages 8-13, ages 14-100) and include prompts such as "Who are the people who care about you most in the world? How do you know?" and "What is your favorite thing in the world to do? Why? How would you feel if you couldn’t do it anymore?"

More family dinner fun

Top Chef Tom Colicchio shares family dinner tips
Fun themes for family dinnertime

How to make family dinner fun

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