The distinct aroma of freshly baked garlic bread, the clinking sound of china as the kids set the table, the calm moment before Dad leads the family blessing— mealtime memories such as these have shaped us into the people that we are today. Whether or not we are aware of their impact, family meals give us hope, a sense of belonging and influence our relationships throughout our lives. Unfortunately, family meals are no longer a priority in the hectic households of America, thanks to our overbooked, undernourished lifestyles.

Our plates are full with a multitude of activities, but our dinner plates are left starkly empty. What does this mean for our children? According to a seven-year survey completed by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, teens who sit down for family dinner five or more nights a week are: 32 percent less likely to try cigarettes, 45 percent less likely to try alcohol and 24 percent less likely to smoke pot, compared to teens who eat dinner with their families twice a week or less. The regularity of the family meal creates a stable environment for youngsters who endure daily temptations and precarious circumstances outside of the home.

An award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist, Miriam Weinstein, felt so passionately about bringing families back to the dinner table that she wrote a book based on the topic, The Surprising Power of Family Meals (Steerforth). Weinstein visited families throughout the country— those who make time for family meals and those who do not— and compared her observations with published research. She found that eating meals together:

  • Improves children’s language skills, which better prepares them to learn to read (even more so than children who are read to).
  • Helps with emotional stability
  • Discourages obesity and eating disorders
  • Helps keep asthmatic kids out of hospitals
  • Keeps the family more in touch with their ethnic heritage and/or community of faith
  • Teaches real life skills, as each member takes on a role with responsibilities as part of the “team”
  • Makes children less stressed and more likely to get As in school
  • Cements relationships and helps family members become more resilient as they deal with daily life

Take a Seat

We’ve expanded our palates and added healthy updates to our menus, but now it’s time to sit down and break bread with our loved ones. And it’s not even about the food— it’s about the fellowship. Worried about pleasing picky eaters? Most of us aren’t told that it can take children ten-20 times of tasting a food before they decide if they like it. Don’t base your menu and dinner decisions on kids. Are you anxious about creating conversations at the table? Don’t try too hard— even small talk and disjointed discourse gives our minds a workout and teaches children the verbal dance of conversation. It may be difficult to make a habit out of family dinners, but start small. If you must get take-out, sit down at home and eat it together. Making a habit out of family meals also means that you don’t have to think of new things to do every night. Do what’s necessary to gather your clan around the table; you’ll make memories to satisfy your bellies and your souls.

Make a Habit Out of Dinner:

  • Stop overbooking yourself and start making suppertime a priority!
  • Consult your own background and determine which family rituals resonate. It can be as small as holding hands while saying grace or assigning roles to family members.
  • Stock your kitchen with child-size utensils, such as mixing bowls and spoons, so that the little ones can join in on the fun of preparing dinner.
  • If schedules don’t allow for family dinners together, how about sharing family breakfasts or late-night snacks?

Serve up these family favorites straight from the cookbooks of real moms:

Tortilla Casserole

From the kitchen of Amy Snyder, Marietta, GA

What you’ll need:
2 cans cream of chicken soup, ¼ cup water, 1 cup chopped onion, 2 chicken breasts, boiled and chopped up into small pieces, 10 flour tortillas, torn into cracker-sized pieces, 4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

What to do:

  1. Mix together in a sauce pan soup, water, onions and chicken.
  2. Layer bottom of 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan with half of the tortilla pieces.
  3. Spread half the soup mixture over the tortilla pieces. Top with two cups of cheese.
  4. Repeat, layering the remaining tortillas, soup mix and cheese.
  5. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Let stand for five minutes before serving.

Fast & Favorite Chicken Broccoli Bake

From the kitchen of Madame Debra L., Ontario, Canada

What you’ll need:
5 to 7 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 2 cans cheddar cheese soup, 1 large bag frozen broccoli, 2 boxes stuffing mix

What to do:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. Boil chicken in a large pot of water for 25 minutes. Drain chicken and chop chicken breasts into chunky pieces.
  3. Layer chicken on bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2-inch casserole dish. Add 2 cans of cheddar cheese soup to chicken, mix well. Add frozen broccoli on top of chicken mixture.
  4. Prepare stuffing as per instructions on box. Once cooked, and while still hot, spread on top of chicken-broccoli mixture.
  5. Place dish or pan into preheated oven. Let cook for 30 minutes or until topping is lightly brown and juices are slightly bubbling on sides. Then, it’s time to get your oven mitts on and begin to serve.

Kids’ First Mac and Cheese

Courtesy of Family Fun Magazine

Try this quick and delicious variation on an old favorite when time is short.

What you’ll need:
1 pound elbow macaroni, 3 cups milk or half-and-half, 12 to 18 slices of American or Cheddar cheese, 12 Ritz crackers, salt, pepper and paprika to taste

What to do:

  1. Cook and drain elbow macaroni and let it cool slightly. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350° and grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan or a large casserole dish with butter.
  2. Have your child spoon a third of the pasta into the pan, then pour in 1 cup of the half-and-half and cover it all with 4 to 6 slices of American cheese. Add two more layers of pasta, half-and-half and cheese in the same manner.
  3. Next, let your little one crush a dozen crackers in a zipped, plastic bag. Add the salt, pepper and paprika, shake to mix, then sprinkle the crumbs over the top layer of pasta and cheese.
  4. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until bubbly. Serves 6 to 8.