What's dinnertime like at your place?
Maybe "dinner" consists of lukewarm takeout, eaten alone in front of the TV while you surf the Internet and answer email. Or perhaps the eat-and-run dinners you share with your spouse or partner barely leave you time to say "hello" and "goodbye" to each other. Or maybe your kitchen is starting to resemble a fast-food restaurant, with family members coming in and out and grabbing a bite between activities.
While 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 "You've got mail!" 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," says Donaldson.
If you're thinking all this doesn't matter much, think again.
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.
And kids aren't the only ones who benefit from a peaceful repast. Experts say that couples as well as singles reap benefits when mealtime 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.
6 Ways to Create Mealtime Bliss
Of course, knowing we should relax at dinnertime is one thing; actually doing it is something else. To help you get started, our experts offered six guidelines for creating a mealtime experience everyone will look forward to.
1. Turn Down the Volume.
Nothing brings down the stress level like turning down the volume of your environment.
"That means no cell phones, no TV, and no radios blaring in the background, and it means not answering the phone during mealtime," says Ekroth.
What should be in the background? Soft, soothing music is an instant stress buster.
Ekroth suggests letting each family member contribute suggestions about what to play, or letting a different person pick the music for each meal. If you have a CD burner, a good family project is creating an hour of dinner music that includes everyone's favorite relaxing tunes.
2. Set the Table to Set the Mood
While you may not want to pull out the good china for every meal, a brightly colored tablecloth is a simple way to give a special look and feel even to your old kitchen plates, says food artist and cookbook author Paula La Mont.
Her trick for making any table setting seem more relaxing, even when the plates don't match: "Buy an inexpensive bouquet of fresh flowers for the table," says La Mont, author of the forthcoming The Little Celebration Cookbook.
"It doesn't have to be elaborate, but it sends the message that dinner is special and we are, too."
3. Let There Be (Soft) Light
Dimming the lighting in the room and adding some candles on the dinner table can go a long way in lowering everyone's stress level.
"Candles also traditionally mark an occasion, so lighting them at the dinner table is a way of saying 'This meal is special -- we're special,' or even if you are single, saying 'I'm special,''' says Renee Schettler, food editor for Real Simple magazine and author of Meals Made Simple. "You get a lot for a little with candles."
If you have young children, try using one large candle set in a weighted base to ensure it doesn't fall over, La Mont suggests.
"You can also turn lighting the candle into part of the dinner ritual -- something that signals the start of a meal -- and let a different child do the lighting each time," says La Mont.
4. Control the Conversation
Too often, say experts, we see dinner with our partner or family as an opportunity to air grievances. This can be particularly true for parents, who may turn the dinner hour into a discipline hour, often because they feel it's the only time they have their child's attention.
To avoid this, experts recommend establishing a few ground rules for dinnertime conversation.
"Be positive and postpone negative comments for another time," says Van Berber. "Avoid lecturing and scolding, and instead reward good manners and good behavior with positive comments."
Further, experts say, don't use mealtime to discuss the "honey-do" list, your medical problems, or why you hate your boss, or your mother. Instead, prompt engaging conversation by discussing the highlights of your day, or by planning a fantasy vacation -- discussing where you'd go if you could go anywhere in the world.
"Make it a time that centers on the positive things that happened that week or that day," says Donaldson. "It's the time to tell your spouse or your children, or both, that what they did that week or that day made you really proud."
5. Keep Your Cool in the Kitchen
The table can look great, the music may be delightful, the food might smell terrific, but if the cook is frenzied, those at the table will be, too, experts say.
"When you get home, take a few minutes before heading into the kitchen to collect yourself," says Schettler. "Take a deep breath, and whether you have 30 seconds or 30 minutes, try to put the day behind you and give yourself the chance to switch gears before you try to make everyone else relax."
It also helps to get as many dinner-related tasks done ahead of time as you can.
"Put the meat in the marinade in the morning or wash the vegetables and boil the macaroni or potatoes for salads the night before," says Schettler. "The less you have to do at mealtime, the more relaxed you will be and the more relaxed your family will feel."
6. Keep It Real
While it would be great if you could make every meal a shelter from the storm, realistically, there are days when that's just not going to happen.
"Family meals do not have to take place every night," says Van Berber, "nor do they need extensive planning."
To make relaxing meals a reality, she says, schedule them on your calendar. And remember, that dinnertime isn't the only time you can have a special meal.
"If breakfast is easier to plan than a dinner meal, make a commitment to gather in the morning several times a week," she says.
It's the sharing and the bonding -- not the food -- that matter most.