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

“Scientific study has confirmed what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a family meal will work for the spirit, the brain, and also 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 lots of behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of depression, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy, in addition to 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 utilization 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 in the University of Minnesota and principal investigator of the Project EAT studies on teen welfare.

There isn’t a magic number to see relatives 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 something conversation, advises Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. Aim to schedule just one mealtime that actually works for every family member. Let everyone know and add the date to the calendar.
  2. Make it easier. Family meals don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. What's everyone’s simplest, most loved meal? Cook it and enjoy it together.
  3. Make it fun. These dinners ought to be a welcoming time, not a place for stress, arguments, or grilling kids regarding their grades. Find the joy and it going.
  4. Make it matter. What you share at dinner can help your relationships endure beyond the table, says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD.

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

Second Helpings

In the past two decades, numerous studies have proven what many parents have always intuitively realized: Eating together is really a key to family bonding and raising happier, healthier children. Psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard's Family Dinner Project and also the mother of two sons, discusses the advantages of family mealtimes.

Experience Life | Are there proven psychological benefits to family dinners?

Anne Fishel | Absolutely. In the last 20 years, there have been dozens of studies showing that regular family dinners are ideal for children's body, mind, and spirit – their mental health. By “regular,” I mean five or more meals per week – and these can be dinners, breakfasts, lunches, or even intentional snacks. Family meals are associated with lower rates of eating disorders, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, anxiety, depression, more resilient self-esteem, and a feeling of being more associated with parents.

EL | Are there nutritional benefits to eating dinner together?

AF | Yes. Home-cooked meals are usually lower in sugar, salt, fat, and calories – and kids are less likely to wash them down with soda. We have a tendency to eat smaller portions at home. And it pays dividends after children leave the house in that they eat more healthfully and are less likely to become obese.

EL | And therefore are there other benefits?

AF | Intellectually, small children benefit immensely from conversation at the table – it's a better booster than even reading aloud to children. Parents may tell stories about their day or say, “Can you think what so-and-so tweeted?” These conversations can lead you to words that are unusual or even more advanced than what kids get in picture books and, even if they're not defined, children understand them in context. A Harvard study found that children might learn a thousand new words from these conversations versus 143 from children's picture books.

For elementary-age kids, regular family dinners tend to be more predictive of high achievement in school than even doing homework, extracurricular activities, or sports. And studies discover that with teens, family dinners are associated with higher grades.

There are also unexpected benefits being discovered. Children who eat regular family meals have fewer asthma symptoms, based on research. They have lower stress levels, and stress can trigger asthma. Parents can check in to make sure kids are in medical compliance and spot smaller symptoms before they become problems. And home-cooked meals will not have food preservatives, that have been found to trigger asthma.

Other studies find these children have better overall cardiovascular health.

Finding More Time to Eat Family Meals Together

“Time is the No. 1 obstacle for most families in eating together,” says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard's Family Dinner Project. She offers several techniques for finding more time to dine together.

  • Take Benefit of Any Opportunity to Eat Together: “If you count all the meals in a week, there are 16 opportunities for the family to eat together,” she says. And also to work around schedules, be flexible: Think of weekend brunches. Have intentional snacks together, for example an evening snack after homework is done.
  • Skip the Snooze Button: “Breakfast may work better for some families to eat together. If you don't press the snooze button in your alarm clock, you get seven or 10 extra minutes each morning and you can have a healthy breakfast and share fun and interesting conversation.”
  • Take Shortcuts to Meal Prep: “Don't focus too much on the food not being gourmet or fancy or using heirloom tomatoes and such. The benefits of family meals come from more than just the food.” Fishel suggests ordering the occasional takeout meal or shortcuts such as buying a rotisserie chicken or precut vegetables. Make double batches of meals, freeze half, as well as heat it up for another dinner. And your larder stocked so you can make quick dishes when needed. “These shortcuts won't subtract points from the power of a family dinner.”
  • Eat in Shifts: “Many families have desperate schedules with extracurricular activities and much more, so try feeding in overlapping shifts. Feed younger kids cut-up vegetables and fruit, then the next shift might have the main meal, and you might all sit together for dessert.”
  • Prioritize: “Decide what your loved ones values are,” she advises – and set family meals high on the list. She suggests advice by family therapist William Doherty, PhD, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to bolster Family Ties, who recommends that parents meet with teachers and soccer coaches and try to work out new times for performances and practice sessions if they are getting in the clear way of family meals. “Instead of the umpteenth extracurricular activity, sometimes you have to let go of certain things so you can have dinner together a couple times each week,” Fishel says.

She provides more ideas in her book, Home for supper: 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, use Fishel's book Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

Ages 2 -7

  • If you joined the circus, what can your act be?
  • Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?
  • If you'd superpowers, what would they be – and just how would you use them to help others?

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, can you change anything?
  • Can you guess all of the ingredients in this dish?

Ages 14 -100

  • What's something 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 just what would you do?