Family experts and sociologists are questioning whether or not the breakdown of the American family could be traced to the dinner table.
Recent studies show that less than 30 percent of American families with children eat together seven nights a week. While seven nights a week may be a lofty goal, experts say dinner together should be a priority at least four times a week.
Busy schedules, instant meals sold at the grocery store, social distractions, stress, and distorted priorities have caused the family dinner table to be a forgotten place in society.
Tom Elliff, an Oklahoma pastor who chairs the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on Family Life, says one of the greatest evidence of the disintegration of our culture is that families no longer take the time to eat together.
"There are many, many factors that come into play, obviously. Many homes have single parents or both parents are working,” he said.
“However, communication within families is very important. A meal provides family members an opportunity to talk and to learn about one another without any distractions – no television, no video games, no telephone.”
Most experts will agree that time around the dinner table is about more than food. Children regard the presence of a parent during dinner as a sign of care and connectedness.
Families who eat meals together, play together and build traditions together thrive. It also builds character within children and teens.
If families spend time together at the dinner table there is a greater chance children will perform better in school and be less likely to exhibit negative behavior, researchers with Focus on the Family report.
Jim Burns, president of HomeWord, a ministry that helps parents build God-honoring families, says children and teenagers must know their parents will give up a busy schedule to spend time with them. If not, he says, that animosity ends up in society.
“A strong family identity also helps children develop a strong and healthy self-identity,” he said.
“Knowing what makes their family unique – traditions, values, ways of relating to one another – gives children a clear starting point for discovering their own place in the world.”
Studies show that kids who identify with their family's values tend to be less promiscuous and face less risk of drug and alcohol abuse.
"It's also around the table that you learn a lot of the graces of a civilized society," said Elliff.
"You learn a little bit about manners. You learn how to listen to one another."
Christian leaders say one way to create opportunities to share your faith with your kids is to pray with them every day at dinner and do a weekly family devotional, even if only for five minutes.
When your children are exposed to God's truth in small amounts it can "help them develop a sweet tooth for Jesus."
"Although it may seem trite, a family that plays together, stays together," Burns said.
“I'm not talking about just cheering on your kids at soccer games or dance recitals but actually playing together. One family I know has a Ping-Pong tournament each week. The winner doesn't have to do the dishes for a day. “
The bottom line is parents should never miss a single chance to celebrate the family.
Dinner can also be a time of celebration for anything including rites of passage and other events such as Little League victories, good grades, a good day, and graduations – from any grade.