written by Rory Anderson, foster division vice president, LiFT Consulting

What if I told you there is one activity you could do every day that would help prevent obesity, addiction, anxiety, stress, drug abuse, depression, and self-esteem issues in your children? Not only that, this one activity also increases your child’s vocabulary, connectedness with you, and resilience. Would you believe me if I told you that as a parent you could accomplish ALL of these things with one simple 30-minute activity every day? It’s all about dinner.

The research on the positive effects of family dinnertime is astounding, if not overwhelming. When I was growing up, family dinner was a time to chat, laugh, enjoy a simple meal, and discuss the day. After 22 years of marriage and five kids, family dinner is still my favorite time of the day. As my children have grown older, it’s not always as easy to match dinner times with every member of the family being present, but we try to eat at a time when most or all of us can attend. When I was a stay-at-home mom, it was much easier to plan and prepare meals and create a special family dinnertime every night. As my children matured and I transitioned into the workplace, one of my biggest fears was holding my family together while juggling work and household duties. It took some adjustment, teamwork, and creativity, but here are a few things I have learned to help busy parents keep family dinner time sacred:

Planning is everything. Make two-week meal plans and shop accordingly. I’ve been doing this for almost two decades. I plan a main dish and write it on a calendar that I use as a guide. When I come home from a long day I already know that I have ingredients for any meal on the list. As a bonus, planning is a huge money-saver.

Prioritize. One of the most difficult struggles these days is finding time to eat together when mom and dad are carting kids across town and back during what used to be dinnertime.

My advice: Choose to make dinnertime the priority instead of the extracurricular activities. For us, if it is something that takes my husband, me, or our kids away from family dinnertime on a prolonged basis, we choose to say no. We’ve also made dinnertime early or later purposefully so that everyone can attend.

Everybody helps. I have a friend whose kids each take a turn helping her make dinner once a week. Now that some of them are old enough, they can prepare a meal by themselves for the whole family. You can also have kids help with setting and clearing the table together. Everyone works together until the jobs are done.

Play with your food. Simple games or activities during dinner can liven up any meal. Check out thefamilydinnerproject.org for ideas on conversation starters, quick and easy games, and meal plans.

Therapist Anne Fishel says, “I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me.” Spend more time at the table together for some free family therapy. You might find that “what’s for dinner” is more satisfying than just mac and cheese.