De-Stress at the Dinner Table (cont.)

"When you add in sibling rivalry and a dose of parental discipline, mealtime can quickly become a combat zone that nobody wants to enter," says Donaldson.

If you're thinking all this doesn't matter much, think again.

Recent research at Columbia University found that children who regularly had dinner with their families are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and more likely to do better in school. In fact, studies show the best-adjusted children are those who eat with an adult at least five times a week, says Ann Von Berber, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

"Many studies support the importance of family mealtime in decreasing the incidence of teens who smoke, drink alcohol, participate in sex at a young age, start fights, get suspended from school, or commit suicide," says Von Berber.

And kids aren't the only ones who benefit from a peaceful repast. Experts say that couples as well as singles reap benefits when mealtime is a relaxing experience.

"It's not only better for the soul and spirit to dine quietly and slowly -- even if you're alone -- but it's also good for the digestion," says Loren Ekroth, PhD, a former family therapist from Las Vegas who is the founder of Conversation-Matters.com.

6 Ways to Create Mealtime Bliss

Of course, knowing we should relax at dinnertime is one thing; actually doing it is something else. To help you get started, our experts offered six guidelines for creating a mealtime experience everyone will look forward to.

1. Turn Down the Volume.

Nothing brings down the stress level like turning down the volume of your environment.

"That means no cell phones, no TV, and no radios blaring in the background, and it means not answering the phone during mealtime," says Ekroth.

What should be in the background? Soft, soothing music is an instant stress buster.

Ekroth suggests letting each family member contribute suggestions about what to play, or letting a different person pick the music for each meal. If you have a CD burner, a good family project is creating an hour of dinner music that includes everyone's favorite relaxing tunes.

2. Set the Table to Set the Mood

While you may not want to pull out the good china for every meal, a brightly colored tablecloth is a simple way to give a special look and feel even to your old kitchen plates, says food artist and cookbook author Paula La Mont.

Her trick for making any table setting seem more relaxing, even when the plates don't match: "Buy an inexpensive bouquet of fresh flowers for the table," says La Mont, author of the forthcoming The Little Celebration Cookbook.

"It doesn't have to be elaborate, but it sends the message that dinner is special and we are, too."