"What if I told you that there was a magic bullet -- something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children's chances of success in the world, your family's health, our values as a society? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce and within the reach of pretty much anyone?"

Miriam Weinstein begins her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals (Steer Forth Press, 2005) with those two questions and then suggests that the "magic bullet" missed by so many families is as simple as a shared meal.

Weinstein, a filmmaker and journalist, has collected an impressive body of data in order to make her case that the institution of the shared family meal represents something of vital importance for human life. Even as the family meal is fast disappearing, Weinstein has issued an eloquent call for its recovery.

As she explains, the research indicates that a shared family meal leads to the strengthening of family bonds, the deepening of relationships, and higher levels of satisfaction and effectiveness among family members. According to Weinstein, the research shows how eating ordinary, average, everyday supper with your family is strongly linked to lower incidents of bad outcomes such as teenage drug and alcohol use, and to good qualities like emotional stability. It correlates with kindergartners being better prepared to learn to read. (It even trumps getting read to.) Regular family supper helps keep kids out of hospitals. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports your staying more connected to your extended family, your ethnic heritage, your community of faith.

That's not all. Weinstein also argues that the regular rhythm of family meals will "help children and families to be more resilient, reacting positively to those curves and arrows that life throws our way. It will certainly keep you better nourished. The things we are likely to discuss at the supper table will anchor our children more firmly in the world. Of course eating together teaches manners both trivial and momentous, putting you in touch with the deeper springs of human relations."

Weinstein makes a compelling case, and her book is sure to prompt many parents to think about what has been lost as the family meal has been eclipsed by other activities and by the cult of individualism that has undermined our communal life.

At the same time, Weinstein understands the complexities of modern family life. She does point back to a golden age of shared family meals in the past, but she acknowledges that families now find themselves drawn in too many directions all at once. In one sense this is the larger problem, and the eclipse of the family meal is only a symptom of what has gone badly wrong.

In reality, families did not merely decide to stop eating together. The rhythms, complexities, and chaos of today's lifestyles simply produced a reality that made shared family meals almost impossible.

Any number of factors play a role in marginalizing shared family meals, but Weinstein points to some of the most easily identifiable among these factors. For parents, the issue is often work schedules and fatigue. As millions of mothers have moved into the workforce, the elaborate ritual of the nightly family meal has often given way to the urgency of getting family members fed as a necessity of human need -- rather than as the focus of a shared event. For adults, evening hours are often filled with extended work, social commitments, and the practicalities of keeping life together in the midst of frenzied lifestyles.

For kids, the enemies of shared family meals include burdensome homework and extracurricular activities -- especially teen sports. A study conducted by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center indicates that between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time that children spent watching other people play sports rose five-fold. This study doesn't even take into account all the time children now spend playing sports themselves.