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The right way to have family dinner

By Bruce Feiler, Special to CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Family dinner doesn't have to be traditional to be good for kids, says columnist Bruce Feiler.
Family dinner doesn't have to be traditional to be good for kids, says columnist Bruce Feiler.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The conventional wisdom is that family dinner helps kids in many ways
  • New research says it's not just dinner, but the time spent interacting as a family
  • The new 'family dinner' can take the form of snack time, story time or just a group chat

Editor's note: Bruce Feiler is a columnist and the author of "The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, & Much More." To hear more from Feiler, don't miss "Sanjay Gupta MD," at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

(CNN) -- A tip for stressed-out parents: Beware conventional wisdom.

If parents have heard anything in the last few years, it's that family dinner is great for kids. And there is research that suggests this. Children who regularly eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, take drugs or develop eating disorders.

Yet here's the bad news: Fewer and fewer of us can make this happen with our schedules. A UNICEF study found that the United States ranked 23rd out of 25 countries in the percentage of children who eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week.

Now here's the good news: There is an alternative. Dig deeper into the research and the data offer encouraging news for parents and a clear solution.

Bruce Feiler
Bruce Feiler

I spent the last few years trying to address the nagging frustrations I felt as a parent and break through the noise of the parenting wars. Be strict like the Chinese! No, be lax like the French!

I wasn't interested in promoting an ideology or defending a country -- I wanted to know what works. I wanted proven solutions to the very real problems my wife and I faced with our young daughters. So I set out to meet real families, innovative scholars, and experts ranging from elite peace negotiators to engineers at Google to Warren Buffett's bankers.

I wanted to figure out: What do happy families do right, and what can I learn from them to make my family happier?

One of the biggest revelations was about family dinner. It turns out there's only 10 minutes of productive time in any family meal, according to linguistics expert Lyn Fogle. The rest is taken up with "Take your elbows off the table" and "Pass the potatoes."

Researchers have found you can take that time and place it at other times of the day and still reap the same benefits. Can't have family dinner? Have family breakfast. Meet for a bedtime snack. Even one meal a week together on weekends can have a positive impact.

Even more surprising -- what you talk about may be even more important than what you eat. Research shows parents do two-thirds of the talking around the table, says Fogle. If you're doing that, you're not taking full advantage of the opportunity of the shared time together.

8 reasons to make time for family dinner

That sets up the best news of all: There are proven things you can do to get the most out of joint family talk time. I consulted psychologists, linguists and game designers, then tested scores of ideas with my own children and other family members.

I came up with more than a dozen that are both fun and have tangible benefits. I dubbed them the "Hunger Games." Here are three; the full list appears in my new book.

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Word a day. A child in grades three through 12 is expected to learn around 3,000 words a year, says Ellen Galinsky in her book "Mind in the Making." You can help by teaching your child one new word every day.

When you're together, go out of your way to use unfamiliar words. Some suggestions: Introduce a prefix (a-, bi-, dis-) or a suffix (-er, -able, -ite) and have everyone create new words. Bring a newspaper or magazine to the table and ask everyone to find a word they don't know. Googling in this instance is allowed.

Autobiography night. One of the more valuable skills a parent can give a child doesn't cost a dime. It's the ability to tell a simple story about the child's life.

Around age 5, children develop the tools to describe past events, but these skills must be practiced. Ask your child to recall a memorable experience, then follow up with "elaborative questions." Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Don't think this matters? Researchers compared American and Asian parents. The American mothers asked more elaborative questions and provided more positive feedback, while the Asian moms focused more on discipline.

When the researchers checked back a few years later, the American children recalled more about their past, while the Asian students remembered more about their daily routines. The more kids remembered about their own history, the more confidence they had to approach challenges in their lives. Especially before a big test or sporting event, encourage your children to tell stories about their past successes or how they overcame failure. It will boost their performance.

Pain points. Family gatherings are one of the few times when members of different ages are on an equal plane. Researchers noticed that when family members tell stories at these occasions, others members join in, add details, and help move the story along. While this can sometimes be frustrating, it actually helps family members work better in teams.

How can you trigger such conversations? Ask everyone to a mention a "pain point." Maybe a child has to do a project with someone he doesn't like or Mom has to take granddad to the doctor during a kid's soccer game. Suddenly everyone teams up to dissect the dilemma and devise possible solutions, all elements of good problem-solving.

The bottom line: Family dinner is less about the "dinner" and more about the "family." With a few simple adjustments, you can use any family get-together to bring your family closer and better prepare your children to enter the world.

Making family mealtime work for you

Does your family eat dinner together or carve out time to talk each day? What benefits or drawbacks have you noticed? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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