A new study published back in May in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that perhaps they are. The authors of the study, Ann Meier, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and Kelly Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, writing in The New York Times concluded::
What, then, should you think about dinnertime? Though we are more cautious than other researchers about the unique benefits of family dinners, we don’t dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence: there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together. (A study by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Use asked teens when, apart from dinner, they talked to parents about their lives: a vast majority said it was when driving in the car.)
But our findings suggest that the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives. So if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.
It isn’t a silver bullet. The key is how you use your time. Are you engaging with your kids? Are you asking them how their day is going? Are you spending quantity time with them, not just quality time? If you’re having meals together great! Just be sure to use it as a time to engage your kids and have some focused times.