The family dinner is being hailed as the antidote to all that is wrong with our modern world. Cookbooks and food magazines entice us with glossy photographs of delicious dishes, and shower us with images of happy family members enjoying meals around tables set with fine china. At first glance, it seems it should be easy to create these magical meals in our own homes.

Most of us, however, live in the real world. Budgets are tight and time is scarce. We want to create those magical meals for our families, but we often lack the resources, energy, and the motivation to make them happen.

Is The Family Dinner A Realistic Goal?

The gorgeous images of perfect (and highly staged) family dinners are not exactly realistic. My table is never going to look like Martha Stewart herself came over and decorated it, and it's going to be a long time before my young children develop the ability to sit through a meal without throwing fits about the "yucky" casserole.

But despite the challenges, I still think that family dinners have many benefits. By relaxing our expectations and focusing on what works in our individual homes, I truly believe that we can create memorable moments and encourage valuable family connections through food.

Making Family Dinner Work for Your Family

If you're struggling to make family dinner work in your household, consider the following tips and tricks that I've found useful for my own family.

1. Make Your Own Rules

Think about what you're hoping to achieve with your family dinners. Are you hoping to teach manners? Generate conversation? Develop a nightly routine? Remember that dinner in a family with teenagers is going to look different from dinner in a home filled with babies and toddlers. Think about your personal goals, and then create a list of your own family dinner guidelines that are tailored to the specific needs of your family.

2. But Remember That Rules Are Made to Be Broken

When family dinner creates nothing but tension and stress, something isn't working. If you've decided that every family member needs to stay at the table through the entire meal, but your 2-year-old is creating havoc after finishing her food in 15 minutes, it might be time to reconsider your rule. Flexibility is key.

3. Understand Ages and Stages

As important as it is to teach our children to enjoy a family meal and behave properly at the dinner table, we also have to remember that they have different developmental capabilities at different ages. Trying to enforce rules that your kids are just too young to follow will only make everyone miserable.

4. Be Spontaneous

If it's a beautiful day, pack a picnic and eat together in the park. If you've planned a nice meal but find yourself too tired to cook, order takeout instead. It's hard to enjoy family dinner if you treat it like another chore that you have to check off your to-do list. Remember, restaurants are okay too, particularly if you want to sit and enjoy your glass of wine while someone else does all the work for a change.

5. Don't Watch the Clock

Family dinner doesn't have to be dinner at all. If everyone is home in the morning, try implementing family breakfast. In our family, since my husband often gets home from work around 8 or 9 at night, we enjoy "late night bites." We don't eat a full meal, but we enjoy snacks or a special dessert, and the kids think it's cool because they get to stay up late to spend time with Daddy.

6. Set It and Forget It

A crockpot is a busy parent's best friend because it offers a great way to get a home-cooked meal on the table with minimal preparation required. If you struggle with family dinners because you don't know what to cook, head out and invest in a crockpot. Then head over to Stephanie O'Dea's A Year Of Slow Cooking blog to find easy, delicious recipes and learn everything you ever wanted to know about using your new slow cooker.

7. Channel Your Inner Italian

Italians know better than most that food and family go hand in hand. But in many Italian families, weeknight dinners consist of simple meals that are easy to prepare, while elaborate Sunday suppers represent the true family dinner. Even if your family can't eat together on a nightly basis, follow the Italian example and consider designating one day a week when the family meal will take top priority.

8. Look for Inspiration

There are many wonderful resources available to help make family the family dinner work for you. Use meal planning apps and websites to help streamline your cooking, and visit a variety of food and parenting blogs to find new ideas and support from other parents. I even love to peruse those beautiful pictures of fancy recipes in food magazines (even though I know they will never grace my own table) because they inspire me to do just a little bit better for my own family.

What does family dinner look like in your home? Is it important to you?

For more family dinner resources, check out the following: