Busy schedules, both parents working and children involved with after-school activities, sports, dance classes and music lessons all add up to less time to spend together as a family at the dinner table. However, there are many benefits of eating together as a family, so whenever possible I encourage you to gather your family and sit together for a meal.

The problem is that many families aren’t sitting together at home very often. Research from Rutgers indicates that about 40 percent of the average family’s budget is spent eating out, and typically they aren’t eating together. Eating out is linked with poorer food choices, and restaurant food items on the average are higher in fat, salt and calories than meals that would be prepared at home.

Nutritional benefits

Research has shown that family dinners increase the intake of fruits and vegetables and families who eat dinner together tend to eat fewer fried foods and drink less soda. Family meal frequency is linked to the intake of important nutrients such as calcium, protein and some vitamins. Family dining also encourages less consumption of junk food. Eating together as a family encourages the development of healthy eating habits that children can carry with them into adulthood.

Families who frequently eat together have children who tend to have a lower body mass index than those who don’t, although the researchers did not find a conclusive between family meals and obesity.

According to studies issued in a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children who eat at least five times a week with their family are at a lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems or alcohol and substance dependencies, and tend to perform better academically in school than their peers who frequently eat meals alone or away from home.

To get your family involved in mealtime, start by planning meals in advance and ask for their input of what they would like to have. Each family member could have a night that their favorite food is served once a month. Experiment with fun new recipes. Cook together as a family with everyone involved in the preparation — even the little ones can wash vegetables and get their hands clean in the process. Perhaps you may want to have theme nights — Italian, Mexican, Canadian or Greek. Meal planning takes extra time but the benefits are well worth the work.

Developmental benefits

Frequent family dinners have a positive effect on children. Social improvements have been linked to frequency of family meals. Children who eat dinner with their family are more likely to understand, acknowledge and follow the boundaries and expectations set by their parents. Incredibly, a decrease in high-risk behaviors is related to the amount of time spend with family — especially during family dinners.

The dinner table can be the perfect place for children to learn to conduct conversations, observe appropriate manners, serve themselves and others, listen, learn about current events, solve conflicts and learn about compromise. Be sure to turn off the television, don’t allow for cellphones at the table and don’t answer the phone if it rings.

It may be difficult at first to get information from children about their school day. Ask them about something that happened today that made them laugh. Express interest in your child’s daily life. Be an active listener and be sure your child learns to listen as well. Make meal time a pleasant time, not a time for punishment or scolding.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure about the specific connection between eating as a family and the reduced childhood obesity rates, but one thing is clear: eating together as a family has several positive benefits for the family — so skip the fast-food lane and prepare a healthy meal with your family tonight.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.