While your child pushes her peas around her plate, you could be boosting her academic skills. Numerous studies show that children who regularly eat meals with their families have a larger vocabulary and score higher on academic achievement tests. Dinnertime is not just about sharing good-for-you food, however — it’s about what happens at the table.

For years psychologists, teachers, counselors, and dieticians have touted the benefits of family meals. When families take the time to eat together, they generally consume healthier foods and engage in conversations that strengthen their bonds. Kids pick up social skills, while parents and siblings learn what’s going on in each other’s lives. And the benefits of family dinners extend to academic skills too.

What the studies say

Researchers at Harvard University and Washington University, as part of the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, gathered and analyzed data over a number of years to see what effects eating together as a family has on children’s communication and academic skills. Diane Beals and Patton Tabors found that 3- and 4-year-olds whose family members exposed them to “rare” words — such as boxer, wriggling, and tackle — scored higher on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test at age 5 than those who weren’t exposed to such words. And children who were exposed to rich vocabulary at mealtimes at ages 3, 4, and 5 were more likely to have better verbal skills up through sixth grade.

In 2000, researchers at the University of Illinois found that children ages 7 to 11 who did well on school achievement tests were the ones who ate meals and snacks with their families. In a 1994 Louis Harris and Associates survey of 2,000 high school seniors, those who ate dinner with their families four or more times a week scored better on tests than those who had family dinners three or fewer times a week. In a Harvard study that followed 65 children over eight years, researchers looked at a host of activities — play, story time, family events, and family dinners — to see which fostered healthy child development the most. Family dinners came out ahead.

Why do dinners make a difference?

Family meals provide that rare opportunity to have longer conversations. And longer conversations, researchers say, allow children to hear words they may not be familiar with and to enhance their linguistic development. Children are more likely to learn new vocabulary by figuring out how someone is using words in context rather than receiving direct instruction or dictionary definitions.

In her research, Beals looked at the effect of families having conversations with what she calls “rich content”: “It could be discussing a trip to the zoo or seeing an orchestra perform ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ bringing in words like trombone and violin, giving children the opportunity to make connections between words and real-life events,” she says. Children also need context to stretch their vocabulary. For example, if a mother tells her young child not to sing at the table because it’s rude, the child begins to understand what rude means. With older kids, discussing current events or even homework assignments can expose them to new phrases.

Extended conversations aren’t just for the dinner table. Driving in the car, playing at the park, and getting ready for bed are also prime opportunities to connect with your child. The key is to be willing to engage in these conversations whenever and wherever they may occur.

Children thrive on rituals, which makes family dinners especially appealing to them. When families eat together, parents can serve as role models by demonstrating social skills, eliminating distractions (like the computer, video games, and TV), and promoting healthy eating habits (your child is more likely to eat veggies if you eat them too) and good table manners.

Make it happen

With soccer practice, homework, and parents working long hours, it can be difficult to schedule regular family meals. Start with small steps — designate one night a week as family dinner night. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, and it can be at home or a restaurant. If you’re eating at home, make it a group effort by having everyone help with the preparation and cleanup. If you keep it simple, it will be easier to focus on spending time together.

How to get the conversation flowing

If the typical answer to “What did you learn in school today?” is “Nothing” in your household, you may be wondering how to spark discussions at the dinner table. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make a game of it. Conversation starters are a breeze with The Family Dinner Box of Questions, in which players answer questions ranging from “If you could have a wild animal from anywhere in the world as a pet, what animal would you choose?” to “What special talent do you wish you possessed?” Says company cofounder CeCe Feiler, “Even teens who don’t normally want to talk will engage in conversation because it’s a nonthreatening game.”
  • Plan an activity. Ask family members for vacation or field trip ideas, then spend the dinner hour discussing the logistics, costs, and pros and cons of the activities suggested. Get everyone to agree on an outing and mark it on your family calendar.
  • Spotlight a family member with a special plate. Create your own or buy a pre-labeled one at the Red Plate Store Online. Each family member gets to have the special plate on a designated night. Focus the conversation on that person’s best qualities — or let him or her pick the menu that night.