Sitting down to a family meal together as a unit has certainly become a thing of the past.  The old image of mom whipping up a multi-course meal perfectly dressed with a neatly pressed apron and matching pearls while dad and the children wait patiently at the table with napkins in lap and impeccable posture are gone, or at least forgotten.  The days of wrapping up work by 5pm in order to be home in time for dinner with the kids has become virtually impossible. With the rise of two income families and the increase in extra-curricular activities, dining together as a family is definitely more difficult than it used to be and the reverberations are felt far and wide.

Experts have spoken about the significance of the family meal for many years.  Family meals have been found to have the strongest influence, more than any other family activity, over a broad range of positive behaviors. Studies have found that family meals help lower incidences of eating disorders in female adolescents, help promote better learning in children and help improve communication with parents and siblings.  Now Columbia University’s National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse has shown that regular participation in family meals significantly reduces the risk of adverse behavior in teens.

The study revealed that teens who share in regular family dinners feel a greater sense of belonging, security and stability and are less likely to partake in tobacco, alcohol or marijuana use than their counterparts. They spend more time with their parents overall and enjoy more stable relationships with their family members.
To encourage families in their efforts to arrange family dinners with their loved ones and keep their children out of trouble, CASA Columbia has instituted a national movement called Family Day – A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children ( Launched as a grassroots effort in 2001, it has now grown to a nationwide initiative that is celebrated on the fourth Monday in September (today, the 26th.)  Ten years later, Family Day, has gained the support of such major corporations as Stouffer’s and the Coca-Cola Company and is supported by the President and all 50 U.S. governors. 

As an etiquette expert, I am forever holding the flag for regular family dinners because I know the myriad of benefits a dinner together can provide.  However, I don’t just want to stand on the soapbox, I want to make the dining experience something more, something fashionable, something that all children and teens will clamor to do for the evening. Now, I’m not talking about fashionable in the sense that everyone must come to dinner in a jacket and tie or knee length dress, I’m talking about making family dinners fashionable as in hip, cool and trendy. Like the “must” thing to do with your family!  To increase the chances of motivating your family in the right direction, we have devised a list of tips we hope you’ll find useful!
Lay down some gentle ground rules.  A few friendly reminders for the family must be employed to guarantee everyone is present and ready for the experience about to take place. Make sure the television is turned off, all cell phones are put away in another room (or at least on vibration mode) and that everyone has washed their hands and looks presentable for dinner. 
Set the tone from the beginning.  Create ambiance if possible. Set the table using cloth napkins, real dishes, silverware and glassware.  Light a couple of candles if you wish.  Put on some soft background music.  This will automatically create atmosphere and will hopefully inspire everyone to conduct themselves with grace and poise at the table for the duration of the meal. 
Seize the opportunity to introduce good health habits.  Sitting down to a family dinner together is an excellent time to establish good health habits with kids.  Whether a meal is homemade or store bought, the menu should be creative and incorporate items from the various food groups.  Educate the children on the value of eating whole grains, buying Organic and incorporating a salad or vegetables with every meal.  If the parents eat these foods, the children will follow suit and learn to love them at a young age.
Allow a chance for everyone to slow down and connect.  Family dinners offer the perfect setting for family members to sit down with one another and really connect. They provide an opportunity for each person at the table to talk about their day, the highs, the lows and everything in between. Do not use the meal together to nag or scold the kids, rather look at it as an opening to engage them in pleasant conversation. The idea is for family members to interact naturally and openly communicate on a number of subjects that interest them.  
Display your finest dining skills.
  This is an excellent time for all members of the family to practice their best dining manners.  Everyone should sit at the table with good posture and both feet on the floor. Napkins should be placed in the lap folded in half lengthwise for maximum coverage. Use the napkin to wipe your mouth or capture a sneeze or cough. Hold utensils continental style with the fork in the left hand and the knife on the right remembering to pierce your food with your fork, push it on with the knife and then bring the food into your mouth fork tines down. If you have to excuse yourself from the table, young children should ask permission to be excused and older children should use the words “excuse me.” At the completion of the meal, napkins are placed on the left side of the place setting.
Continue the fun even after the meal is complete.  If everyone is having a good time at the table and all homework is complete (or it is a weekend night), the family dinner can continue even after the meal is finished.  Board games or a good old-fashioned game of cards or charades is an excellent, not to mention entertaining, way to bring the family together and continue the fun at any age.  Games provide more opportunity for face-to-face communication and add an element of friendly competition into the mix.
Ease into a schedule and give it some time.  Do not feel pressure to gather the troops for 4-5 nights of dining together at first.  Begin with one night a week and increase accordingly. What’s more important is the quality of your experience together, not the quantity.  With a little luck, all family members will look forward to these special nights in which everyone comes together face-to-face to connect, share and engage on a multitude of levels.  

Do you incorporate family dinners into your regular regimen at home? Share with us. We’d love to hear from you! We also highly recommend picking up a copy of The Family Dinner by Laurie David. It is a fantastic resource filled with great recipes and imaginative ideas for bringing the family together.