6 Ways to Add Fun to Family Dinner

by Sally on January 15, 2014

 6 Ways to Add Fun to Family Dinner from Real Mom Nutrition

On a recent Sunday, my husband and I were cooking together, and the boys were pretending we were on a cooking show. It extended to dinner time, when they wanted to judge the dish (a new-to-them chili). So we asked them to rate the chili on a scale of 1-5 for various categories like appearance, aroma, and flavor. They loved it. And while they were thinking about their scores and laughing about some of their silly answers, they ate the chili. And didn’t make a single comment about the chopped-up peppers or the extra spice.

A little bit of fun eases any kind of pressure kids may feel at the dinner table–and makes those 20 minutes around the table together so much more memorable. I reached out to some other moms to find out how they have fun at mealtime. Here are six ideas:

1. Play restaurant

I once told Bri DeRosa–of the blog Red, Round, or Green–that I wanted to be a kid living in her house. That’s because she makes life so fun for her two boys, and dinnertime is no exception. One dinner game they play is “fancy restaurant”. She says, “We really set the stage: Beautiful table linens, candles in crystal candlesticks, nice plates, upscale glasses.  We dim the lights and turn on classical music for ambience, and address them as ‘Sir’. We usually serve something special for a beverage like sparkling cider, and we present it just like a sommelier would. Then we present ‘tonight’s specials’. We bring in the dishes and offer them each a taste of each ‘course’ as if it were a chef’s tasting menu. I serve small amounts to begin and check in frequently to ask how they’re enjoying their food and what they’d tell the chef about each item. They LOVE this game.  They use their best manners, and sometimes start speaking in British accents because that’s how they think a ‘gentleman’ would talk. It encourages them to try new things because it’s a) a novel environment, with no “mom and dad” presence — we really pretend we don’t know them; b) a pre-set ‘menu’ presented to them in a fun way; c) offered with lots of opportunity for feedback — they can tell the chef what they think of the food, they can talk about which courses are favorites, etc.  It also probably doesn’t hurt that there is usually a fun and fancy dessert like parfaits in beautiful glasses awaiting them at the end of the meal.”

2. Enlist them as recipe reviewers.

Dietitian Janice Bissex, cofounder of Meal Makeover Moms, says that when her daughters (now 21 and 14) were younger, she “hired” them to be recipe testers at dinner. She had them review the recipes using a chart with columns for “I like it”, “It’s okay”, and “No thanks”–plus a column for a sticker for trying a new recipe. After a certain number of stickers, her girls earned a prize. “It was a fun way to get them engaged and try new foods,” she says. Want to do this with your kids ? You can download and print the chart for yourself.

3. Let them play with their food.

Tasting new foods is great, but having other sensory experiences with food can also help build acceptance, says Dina Rose, author of the new book It’s Not About the Broccoli. Simply seeing, touching, and smelling food can help reluctant eaters–and add fun to mealtime. For instance, she says, allow your child to “paint” his plate with ranch dressing using a carrot stick “brush”. Or ask your child some questions about the food that may elicit some laughter–like “Is the food pretty or does it look weird?” and “Is the food very smelly, kind of smelly, or not at all smelly?”–but that will also give you valuable info about how he’s experiencing the food.

4. Make everyone giggle.

Jill Castle, a dietitian who blogs at Just the Right Byte, says her family focuses on laughing and talking during dinner. The mom of four says, “When the kids were younger, we played The Rhyming Game. Each child got to start with a word and we went around the table with each person coming up with a word that rhymed. We also played Telephone. Someone would start with a sentence and whisper to the person next to them, going around the table. There were lots of laughs because eventually they caught on to making sentences difficult and hard to interpret.”

5. Tell stories.

Mom of three Grace Freedman, founder of eatdinner.org, says the best family dinners are full of laughter. She explains, “I think it comes down to the story-telling. Even when my kids were younger, we valued story-telling at the dinner table. It probably started with my husband telling childhood stories, but my very talkative oldest son soon took the lead with stories of his own. Whoever could tell the most interesting, funny or surprising story of the day held the floor at the table. As my other two children grew older, they also caught the story-telling bug. I really notice it now that we have two teenagers and an eight year old at the table. Each of them asserts ‘Wait, I have a story!’ and they all vie for the attention and chance to tell their own story.”

6. Connect.

Mom Gina Rau of the blog Feed Our Families points out that family dinner is usually the first time all day that most families can sit, take a breath, and take time to reflect together. So they make the most of it. She says, “We like to play games like sharing Highs and Lows from our day to get everyone talking. The kids share things that I know I wouldn’t have heard about any other time. We’re big fans of the To Fill A Bucket books so we often talk about what we did or said to make others feel good that day. We all look forward to this time together.” Check out her other great ideas for creating family rituals around dinner.

How do you have fun at mealtime with your family?
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Deanna Segrave-Daly January 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Adore this list and pinning to use some of these strategies myself! We’ve played “waitress” a few times at lunch where I’ll take my daughters drink order (gets an option of milk or water) and ask for her order (not short order cook mentality but she selects from what we have on the table.”) She thinks it’s great fun and then takes our “orders.”

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Sally January 15, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Thank you Deanna! And I love that you switch and your daughter takes your orders too. How fun!

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Liz - Meal Makeover Mom January 16, 2014 at 9:10 am

Great round-up of ideas, Sally. At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun at mealtime. When the pressure to “eat your vegetables” goes away, kids become so much more willing to try new foods! I always found in my household that if big brother ate his meal happily, so did the little guy. Now that my boys are teenagers, they eat everything! So for parents of picky eaters, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel :)

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Sally January 16, 2014 at 11:13 am

Thanks Liz. And thanks for the encouragement–it’s great to hear that all the stuff we’re doing when they’re younger really does pay off.

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Kate Kelley January 17, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Fun stuff, Sally! I love the “cooking show” idea. One thing we’ve been doing lately is naming all the ingredients. They call it the Name Game. I’ll say something like, “There are six vegetables, two proteins, and three grains in this meal, who can name them?” And then they try to name them. My younger son is a great eater. He might say, “Eeeewwww!” when he finds out about green peppers in the sauce, but he eats it anyway. My older non- eating son, will actually take more bites than usual so he can get more right answers. My husband is amazed at how I pack the nutrients into everything and how, in the game, the kids will eat something they previously swore off. (I am about ready to make him play the Name Game when it is his turn to cook (read: order in or open frozen food boxes) evil genus that I am.)

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