What's dinnertime like at your house?
Maybe "dinner" consists of lukewarm takeout, eaten in front of the TV, while you also surf the Internet, or answer e-mail. Or perhaps the eat-and-run dinners you share with your kids barely leave you time to say "hello" and "good-bye" to each other. Or maybe your kitchen is starting to resemble a fast-food restaurant, with family members coming in and going out and grabbing a bite between activities.
Although the dinner hour once represented a calm oasis from the day's storm, experts say today it's often anything but relaxing.
"We're hurried, we're harried, we've turned up the volume of our lives to such a high number that we often can't even see how stressed we are. And we almost never see how we bring that stress to the dinner table, a place where traditionally we sought relaxation and comfort," says Mimi Donaldson, a stress and time management expert.
With blaring TVs, ringing cell phones, and e-mail alerts chiming in the background, in some homes, the dinner hour is every bit as stressful as the rest of the day, says Donaldson, co-author of the book Bless Your Stress: It Means You're Still Alive.
"When you add in sibling rivalry and a dose of parental discipline, mealtime can quickly become a combat zone that nobody wants to enter," Donaldson says.
If you're thinking all this doesn't matter much, think again.
How Family Dinners Help Kids
Recent research at Columbia University found that children who regularly had dinner with their families are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and more likely to do better in school. In fact, studies show the best-adjusted children are those who eat with an adult at least five times a week, says Ann Von Berber, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
"Many studies support the importance of family mealtime in decreasing the incidence of teens who smoke, drink alcohol, participate in sex at a young age, start fights, get suspended from school, or commit suicide," says Von Berber.
This may be because families that eat together more often probably also communicate more often. Family mealtimes are a way to increase the time you spend talking -- but making a point to just hang out and spend time talking can help even more.
How Relaxed Meals Help Couples and Singles
Kids aren't the only ones who benefit from peaceful mealtimes. Experts say that couples as well as singles reap benefits when eating is a relaxing experience.
"It's not only better for the soul and spirit to dine quietly and slowly -- even if you're alone -- but it's also good for the digestion," says Loren Ekroth, PhD, a former family therapist from Las Vegas who is the founder of Conversation-Matters.com.