With Thanksgiving less than a week away, thoughts turn towards the family meal. Holidays aside, how often do you and your children eat dinner together as a family? After-school, sports and work schedules can make gathering for family meals tough to organize on a regular basis. But researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University have identified a significant number of advantages to making time for family dinners. Their studies, released in 2005 after almost a decade of study, show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use. Seems like we should all work a bit harder to make these family meals happen more often.

When researchers looked at ethnic and racial breakdowns, they found that more than half of Hispanic teens ate with a parent at least six times a week, in contrast to 40% of black teens and 39% of whites. Interesting to note that the families with the least educated parents eat together the most; parents with less than a high school education share more meals with their kids than do parents with high school diplomas or college degrees. Family dinner gets better with practice; the more often a family eats together, the better the experience is likely to be.

My entire family eats together periodically at best, due to our hectic schedules, but my boys eat together practically every night (and when their sister is home from college she joins them). I sometimes sit with them to catch up on their days even if I am not sharing the meal, and my husband will join us from time to time as well. There is something so comforting about sitting around the table together, a respite from our crazily busy days. While I can’t be sure that our periodic family dinners have provided all the benefits listed above, I can think of a few additional things I appreciate about the family meal:

Good Opportunity to Say “Thanks”. Our children have been blessing the table before eating for as long as they can remember. Reminding ourselves that we are thankful for the chance to be together and for the food we are about to eat is a great way to start the meal.

Dinner Time is Listening Time: This is a great time to catch up on what’s been happening in everyone’s lives. Not the headlines, but the feature stories. I generally hear some of the most interesting stories (and sometimes good scoop) during dinner time conversations.

Family Dynamics in Action: Family dinners provide a good opportunity to observe how members of the family interact, and to make mental note of any issues or attitudes among siblings which deserve closer attention after the meal.

Etiquette Rules: What better place to discuss (and model) good table manners and conversation etiquette? Good table manners don’t appear out of thin air, they need to be taught and reinforced. This is also a great place to help your family members discover (and try to eliminate) annoying habits like being a constant interrupter, hogging the conversation, or telling interminably long stories.

Thanksgiving is the family meal on steroids: major food production, major family togetherness. A day to focus on being together as a family, but probably not the best day to start any family dinner traditions, as the bar will be set way too high. After Thanksgiving, we all should try to make an effort to gather together at the table as a family more often.

GCP readers, how often do you eat family meals together? How has it benefited your family? Any tips for ensuring that it happens more regularly?