Family dinner has a host of benefits, ranging from family bonding to improved vocabulary. Here's how to make the most of your evening meals.

family eating dinner together with two kids
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You can’t underestimate the importance of family dinner. For starters, eating a meal together helps your family connect and bond. "Mealtime is often the only time in the whole day when everybody's in the same room having a conversation," says William Doherty, Ph.D., author of The Intentional Family (Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), "so it's where the family's culture gets created."

Even more impressive is the research suggesting that regular family meals can sharpen a child's intellect. Diane Beals, Ed.D., of the University of Tulsa, and Patton Tabors, Ed.D., of Harvard, studied 80 preschoolers and found that mealtime conversation built vocabulary even more effectively than listening to stories or reading aloud. And because gathering for a family meal is an inherently communal exercise, it naturally gives rise to basic courtesies, like saying "Please" and "Thank you," and keeping your mouth (mostly) shut when you chew.

If you want to improve your mealtime game, follow these five tips for better family dinners.

1. It doesn't have to be every night.

Sixty-five percent of families with children under 6 eat dinner together five or more nights a week, but that number drops to 50 percent for families with children 12 to 17. Ben Silliman, Ph.D., a family-life specialist at the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service, observes, "You get one kid in soccer, another in Scouts, and Mom's in a book club, and that can shoot three or four nights a week right there." The solution? "Eat together as often as you can," says Dr. Silliman, "and make it a pleasant experience." Even one night a week, though not optimal, gives your family an opportunity to connect.

2. It doesn't have to be at home.

Nobody wants to spend a fortune taking the family out to fancy restaurants, but fast food can be a godsend when you're pressed for time or the logistics get complicated. The local McDonald's can provide a change of scenery even the youngest children appreciate. "When my children were preteens," recounts Dr. Doherty, "we got into the habit of going out for pizza on Friday nights. We found we had more interesting conversations and far fewer fights. You haven't had to work to fix the meal, and you're out in public, so you behave a little bit better." The whole experience is just that much more pleasant.

3. It doesn't have to be Mom doing it alone.

Many of us still struggle with the stereotypes we see on late-night reruns — Donna Reed in her apron (and high heels!), whipping up something tasty in the kitchen. Feeding a family is a big job, but it can be split into components that can easily be delegated: setting the table, making the salad, pouring the drinks, loading the dishwasher. "When kids are involved in preparing dinner," says Dr. Silliman, "they're invested in spending that time together." And, of course, you can always let your fingers do the walking and order takeout. After all, family meals will hardly stay enjoyable if one party resents the burden of putting on the show night after night.

4. It doesn't have to be dinner.

Tom Price, coauthor, with his wife, Susan Crites Price, of The Working Parents' Help Book (Peterson's, 1996), suggests variations on the evening meal. "If Dad doesn't get home until 8:00, Mom and the kids can have dessert with him. Or the family meal can be Sunday brunch." Lois Feldman and her husband, Fred Stern, of New York City, often work late, so family dinners are irregular. When their son, Michael, was 8, says Feldman, "we instituted family breakfast. It's amazing how bonding it is, even just 15 minutes a day."

5. It doesn't even have to be food.

Sure, that's the usual arrangement, but, as Dr. Doherty notes, eating together "is not the only way that family culture can be created." What matters is that family members make an effort to be together on a regular basis, focusing on one another, undistracted by TV, telephone, or video games. Tom and Susan Price go for evening walks with their daughter, Julie. "We go out for half an hour just before bedtime," says Tom. "Somehow, Julie seems more comfortable discussing important subjects in the dark." For some families, driving time is ideal for bonding; others connect over gardening chores.

The only constant in family life is change, and what works this month may cease to work next month, or next year. The key is flexibility. If you can throw out your preconceptions of what mealtime should be, then you can fashion a style of family dining that offers regular, enjoyable time with the people you love most.