Remember Why It's Important
The whole point of a family dinner is that it should be the highlight of your day. This is where the joy comes in. And beyond that, you're setting up a lifetime of great meals for your kids. If I didn't establish this ritual, I don't know when I would see my teenagers. But because I did, they know that on weeknights they're accountable, and that has served me very well.
Have dinner every day at a similar time. Make clear that everybody has to come -- regardless of excuses, regardless of whether they're hungry. And no technology at the table -- no screens of any kind.
Prepare One Meal
Part of what makes dinner chaotic for a lot of families is the constant getting up and down. If you have a rule of "one meal, no substitutions," you'll save yourself a lot of hassle. Make a dinner that has something in it that everyone will like, but remember, you're modeling how to eat and what to eat. Serve healthy, family-friendly food, and kids will learn to eat it. And take the pressure off yourself. Not every meal has to be three courses. Dinner can be as simple as soup and a salad. It can be scrambled eggs with broccoli in them.
Instead of everyone coming to the table and being like, "Oh, we need water," get everything in place before you're seated. Kids can help with that, which saves time and engages them in the meal. Even if you just have them ripping herbs and tossing them into a bowl, all of a sudden they're like, "Oh, I helped cook dinner." It gets them to buy in. And, of course, have them help clean up. Alter the jobs so that everyone's doing something different all the time. You can also outsource: I used to trade cooking nights with my girlfriends. I did taco Tuesdays at my house, and my girlfriend did Shabbat Fridays at hers. That was one less night I had to worry about cooking.
Set a Special Table
Here's a really simple way: Light a candle. As soon as you have a candle on your table, everyone calms down. It gives grace to the meal and says, this is our time -- this is not about yelling and fighting. And if you're serving takeout, put it in dishes instead of leaving it in plastic.
Make It Fun
Dinner doesn't have to be in the dining room. Move around the house: Have dinner at your counter or at the coffee table, with everybody on the floor; put a blanket down and have a picnic. You'll send a message that dinner is a time to be at peace and have fun.
Shift your consciousness a little bit and view dinner as a time to connect with each other, not as just a time to refuel. Conversation is as important as the food. It can be a question -- "What's your greatest pet peeve?" -- that everyone takes a turn answering. It can be a word game, or a discussion of the day's events. Two questions I avoid are: "How was your day?" and "How is the food?"