“Family dinner is not a construct, it’s a feeling.”

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In a world of endless sports practices, music lessons, and shared custody, dinner time in America isn't what it once was.

Studies have shown that children who eat dinner with their parents tend to do better socially, emotionally, and even academically, leading generations of moms and dads to force nightly family bonding sessions over plates of spurned peas and reheated casseroles.

But, for many families, that kind of rigid schedules simply isn't possible. From work schedules to health conditions, there are plenty of reasons why parents might to be able to wrangle their offspring and seat them around a table for an Instagram-worthy meal each night.  

“Family dinner is not a construct, it’s a feeling.”
Credit: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

So, does that mean their kids are doomed to lives of failure?

Fortunately, the experts say no.

In a recent article for HuffPost, writer Julie Kendrick spoke to a number of professionals about the dilemma of the modern family dinner. While they all agree that family meals play an important role in a child's development, they also recognize the need for flexibility. Parenting is never one-size-fits-all, nor should it be.

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, University of Minnesota professor and author of ″I'm, Like, SO Fat!″: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World, believes strongly in the "protective effect" of families who eat together. If the pursuit of that nightly goal causes stress, however, the protective effect may be negated.

"The atmosphere at the table is important," she told HuffPost. "If there's fighting, or if there are comments about the amount of food being eaten—or not eaten—then that's not doing anyone any good."

Journalist Louise Gleeson experienced that firsthand in her attempt to provide nightly home-cooked dinners for her husband and four young children.

"I had read those 'experts say' articles, and I felt like I'd need to grow three arms to make it all happen," Gleeson told HuffPost. "I felt pressure to create an ideal family dinner, but I was miserable and stressed-out by the time we all sat down. The positive vibe I had wanted my kids to feel was gone. No one was having fun."

In the end, she adopted a new philosophy: "Family dinner is not a construct, it's a feeling."

"At our house, the table is a gathering place, not a jail," Gleeson continued. "We don't need to subscribe to some formula an expert is giving us, so we've created our own practices and traditions."

Experts agree that Friday pizza nights and weekend meals still provide an opportunity for kids to build important skills like paying attention and communicating. When it comes to emotional development, it's never been about the food. It's about time spent together.  

Studies have shown that taking 10 to 15 minutes to connect with your child at any point throughout the day, whether it be driving them to school or giving them a bath, has the same benefits as sharing a meal with them.

Laura Bellows, an associate professor in the division of nutritional science at Cornell University, told HuffPost that "being present is the most important thing."

"When it's only about the food, it becomes something else," she explained. "It really should be about conversation, interaction and sharing of emotions, whatever that looks like."