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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”