In the past few years, much has been made in the media about the importance of the family dinner. Over and over again, we as parents have heard from many so-called experts that this nightly ritual is crucial to the happiness and wellbeing of our kids. But what about those of us who simply can't make family dinner work? What are we supposed to do? And are our children paying the price?

Does Family Dinner Really Matter?

There's a lot to be said for gathering around the table as a family at the end of a busy day. Breaking bread, sharing triumphs and disappointments, and generally enjoying each other's company are all valuable components of family life. But connecting as a family doesn't have to take place at the dinner table; in fact, it can happen just about anywhere at all.

According to a study published in the Journal of Family and Marriage in May 2012, the benefits of family dinner may not be as strong as some experts suggest. And in a piece published in The New York Times, the study's authors insisted that it's time spent connecting with and influencing our kids that really matters — not where those moments take place.

"If you aren't able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis," they write, "don't beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids."

Alternatives to Family Dinner

Opportunities to connect as a family exist outside of dinnertime. If you can't make the family dinner work on a regular basis, consider some of these ideas instead.

1. Family Breakfast

Is everyone in your family home in the morning? Get up a bit earlier, cook a meal you all enjoy, and sit down at the table together before everyone heads out for the day.

2. Family Dessert

If it's too hard to gather the family at 5 or 6 p.m. when mom or dad may still be at work and the kids are at various sports practices, maybe you can gather everyone at 8 or 9 p.m. to share a dessert or a bedtime snack. Think outside the box when considering your options.

3. Family Meetings

Weekly or bi-weekly family meetings can help resolve conflict, build family unity, and foster a sense of autonomy by engaging kids in the decision-making process. Routine family meetings provide built-in insurance that your family will always have time to come together.

4. Car Trips

Some of the best conversations happen in the car (especially when you don't have a TV in there). If you find yourself logging lots of miles and feeling like a taxi service, remember that a little conversation goes a long way when it comes to connecting with your kids.

5. One-on-One Time

If you're struggling to pull the whole family together at once, look for opportunities to spend time alone with each child. This could include both mom and dad, or be in the form of a special "date" with just one parent.

6. Family Game Night

Whether it's once a week or even once a month, a family game night filled with laughter can be just the way to bring your family together and connect with your kids.

7. Family Vacation

If you have the means, regular family vacations provide an opportunity to leave the stresses of daily life behind. Whether you travel to an exotic destination, plan a cheap weekend getaway, or spend a few lazy days on a family staycation, you'll all benefit from the quality time together.

8. Family Face Time

Yes, I just suggested connecting with your kids through technology. But think about it — Face Time or Skype are wonderful inventions for parents who travel, work late, or don't live in the same home as their kids. And touching base with tech-savvy teens often means meeting them where they're at — which these days is almost always on their iPhone.

9. A Family Notebook

My daughter and I use a Mom and Me notebook to write notes back and forth to each other, and what started as a silly ideas has turned into a wonderful tool for communicating with my soon-to-be pre-teen daughter. Families can tweak this idea by requiring every family member to write in the book and stay up-to-date on its contents.

10. Volunteer as a Family

Sometimes, you have to think quality, not quantity. And when you work together as a family to help those less fortunate, you're likely to find that you're also helping yourselves.

11. Sunday Dinner

Maybe you can't dine together every night, but that doesn't mean you have to scrap it all together. Choose one day that works for everyone and make a commitment to the family dinner. It may not be absolutely necessary, but you'll never regret making it a priority.