"What did you do in school today?" "Who did you play with at recess?" "Did you see that article in the newspaper?" Eating together as a family is one of those things that doesn't seem like such a big deal. But it can make a big difference for your kids in terms of self-image, sense of security, self-esteem and overall sense of happiness. "Regular family meals are probably the best psychological 'daily vitamin' parents can give their children," says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Mass., and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's." "They're far more powerful in the long and short term than you might think they are."
That's because family meals make kids feel good, especially when you focus on keeping the conversation positive. "Dinner can be a wonderful time to hear about everyone's day or anything else your kids want to talk about that you don't usually take the time to discuss," says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., founder of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, Fla. It also gives kids the chance to be themselves and share their opinions within the safe confines of home, without risking the rejection of their peers. And even toddlers can begin to feel like a valued contributing member of their family when they scoot their chair up to the dinner table and start to chime in. While the peas are being passed, the open forum gives your kids the opportunity to learn about your family's history and your past -- for example, the time when you got sent to the principal because you threw peas in the lunch room. Mom threw peas?! Who knew?
It's no wonder that family meals are associated with lower teenage pregnancy rates, higher grade point averages, fewer eating disorders in teens and lower risk of depression. Moreover, the psychological benefits go both ways. A recent telephone survey of 2,008 Americans sponsored by Barilla found that adults who eat with their kids regularly with few distractions (no TV or phone) report higher overall life satisfaction. "Family meals pay off for adults and children," says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, who helped Barilla analyze the survey results. It's a ritual none of us really ever outgrow. The key is to start the meal tradition when your kids are young, then keep it up. "When you get your kids into the habit of family dinners, they'll keep doing it when they get older and become more independent," Doherty says. In other words, when they morph into eye-rolling teenagers.
To keep everyone coming back for more, turn off the TV and cell phone and up the fun factor. We asked moms across the U.S. to share the unique ways in which they make meals memorable and festive for the whole family.
We have picnics on the dining room floor.
"Every now and then, my family of seven eats dinner on the floor. We spread out a tablecloth or picnic blanket and eat something on the ground that's really a drag to clean up, like the rice in burritos or Chinese food. My kids think sitting on the floor is weird and fun, and even funnier that my husband and I are doing it, too. I notice that when we eat on the floor, my kids don't complain as much about the food and they can't jockey for seats or get up and wander around like they sometimes do. It breaks us out of a rut."
--Michelle Nicholasen, Somerville, Mass.
We have DIY dinners.
"At least once a week, I'll put out all the parts of the dinner separately and have my husband and son make their own version of whatever it is we're having. With taco night, for example, I'll put out corn tortillas, refried beans, Spanish rice, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, cheese, salsa, meat, and cheese. My husband and son love it because they can make their own taco combos and I love it because I don't have to be the one to do all the work. Build-a-dinner works great with pasta, burritos, pizza and even dessert with company such as a make-your-own sundae bar."
--Jill Houk, Chicago
We have table talkers.
"We have a 'talk about it' bowl, an actual bowl that my kids and my husband and I can fill with conversation starters, such as an article we've seen, a photo we've ripped out of a magazine, or an object, like a funny sticker, to later talk about at the table. If no one puts something in the bowl, I have a list of questions I've typed up and folded up like Chinese fortunes that are meant to stir conversation, such as: What actor/actresses would play you in the movie of your life and why? What's the funniest story you know about yourself as a baby? If you could change your name, what would it be? What activities would fit into your perfect day? Would you be willing to have nightmares every night for a year if you could be rewarded with extraordinary wealth? If you could have one superpower, what would you choose? The questions have changed as my girls, who are now teenagers, have gotten older. But over the years, we've found out some interesting stuff about each other. This game is even more fun to do with guests."
--Jeanne Muchnick, Larchmont, New York
We light candles every night.
"Eating by candlelight makes the dinner seem special and gets my three kids to slow down, have a conversation, and linger at the table to share stories from the day long after the food is gone."
--Pamela MacPhee, Encinitas, Calif.
My husband and sons do the cooking.
"Every Tuesday night, my husband and two sons plan dinner and prepare it. I love it because I have a night off, plus it's a great way for the kids to learn to cook."
We have storybook dinners.
"When my 6-year-old son, Franklin, gets interested in a character or a historical happening, I create a meal around it. For example, he's been watching a DVD of an Australian storybook in which the characters eat pavlova (a meringue-based dessert with strawberries or kiwi) and lamington (sponge cake dipped in chocolate), so we found recipes for these desserts and made them for a little Aussie dinner party, along with shrimp on the barbie. If we center dinner around a theme, it's no problem to get everyone excited about it."
--Elura Nanos Kish, Cherry Hill, N.J.
I fix lots of finger foods.
"My boys love to dip and dunk so I often serve finger foods such as wings, ribs, celery stuffed with light cream cheese and Greek yogurt, and carrot sticks. I also fill a compartmentalized appetizer tray with sliced cucumbers, sliced peppers, pieces of strong cheese, nuts, olives, crackers, and sliced whole-grain breads along with Greek yogurt, hummus, tzatziki, even applesauce. They love to play with the combinations."
--Georgia Orcutt, Boston
My kids help make dinner an event.
"My girls, ages 8, 6, and 3, help me plan our meals for the week. They'll write the grocery list for me, drawing items if they can't spell them. Then they'll carry the list through the grocery store and check off items as we find them. I think my girls have more fun with dinner because they're included in the process. They've planned entirely green dinners--pesto chicken, broccoli, honeydew melon, and a salad. We've also had princess night in which everyone comes in costume and dinner is served on our good china."
--Christine Bolzan, Boxford, Mass.