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.”
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?
This week, I reached out to readers on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page asking for their most frustrating feeding dilemma when it came to their kids–and promised that feeding expert and parent educator Dr. Dina Rose would address one of them on this blog. Dr. Rose, who is full of effective strategies for diffusing mealtime angst and teaching kids healthy habits, has a brand new book called It’s Not About the Broccoli. (You can win a copy by entering this giveaway.)
The dilemma I chose comes from dad Michael. Not only does this happen in my own house, but it’s also something I frequently hear from other parents: “My son doesn’t eat much dinner, says he’s full, gets up from the table, and asks for a snack 10 minutes later.”
So to Michael–and all of you who experience this as well–here’s what Dr. Rose’s says:
The easiest way to fix a parenting problem is to see the world through your child’s eyes. So let’s jump inside your son’s head for a moment to see what’s probably going on. I bet he’s thinking some version of the following:
- The food mom and dad serve at dinner is OK, but I don’t like it that much, especially compared to the snacks they give me after dinner.
- Dinner is no fun. We have to sit around forever. Plus, sometimes there’s pressure to eat stuff I don’t want—like veggies.
- I don’t get a lot of say about what’s served for dinner, but I get to choose my after-dinner snack. I like getting to choose.
- Saying “I’m not hungry,” is the only way I can be excused from the table.
We’ve got four separate, but related, issues here. That means we need four separate, but related, solutions. Taken together these four steps will produce change.
Step 1: Create an incentive for your son to eat at meals.
One reason kids can afford to refuse meals is that they know there’s always another meal (aka a desirable snack) waiting in the wings. Eliminate snacking on-demand by creating a schedule that includes general times for eating—dinner is sometime between 5 and 7; after dinner snack is sometime between 8:30 and 9. I call these Eating Zones. Meals and snacks get offered once during each Eating Zone. If they’re refused, or if your son doesn’t eat enough, then he has to wait until the next Eating Zone to eat again. Let me be clear: This is not a starve-him-out approach. It’s a structure for eating that will give your son a chance to experience the consequences for passing up dinner. And learning to live with mild hunger is a valuable life skill.
Make sure the snacks you serve are snack “size,” not meal “size.” And, it will help if snacks are not your son’s favorite foods.
Step 2: Take the pressure off dinner.
The best way I know to eliminate pressure at dinner is to serve a few bites of fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack…most days. That way you know that when your son gets to the dinner table he’s already eaten a lot of the good stuff (or at least more than you’ll get by trying to coax a few more bites just at dinner). Then, start serving very small portions at dinner so that it’s easy for your son to to tackle the task. And vow never to ask your son to eat even a few more bites. Don’t worry that this will leave your son hungry. You’ve already covered that problem with Step 1.
Step 3: Incorporate more choices during dinner and fewer choices at snack time.
The kind of choices I’m talking about do not include, “What would you like for dinner?” Who wants to be a short-order chef? The choices I’m talking about include occasionally consulting your child before the meal to see if he’d like you to make chicken or hamburgers, or green beans or asparagus. And during the meal try putting out a few bowls of cut up veggies (that you keep in the fridge). Ask your son to help himself from two of the three bowls. Other ways to increase dinnertime choices include: which bowl? cup? chair?
Reduce the choices at snack time by setting some parameters: snack can be only a fruit or a vegetable; you can’t have the same snack two days in a row; snack must be eaten at the table.
Step 4: Give your son a legal way to end the meal.
Most children learn to say, “I don’t like it,” and “I’m not hungry,” to get out of eating because they know it’s the statement their parents will accept. Imagine what would happen, though, if you gave your son an alternative way out—”I”m bored; May I be excused?” “I’d like to go back to my trucks; May I be excused?” That wouldn’t just keep him from “using” his hunger to manipulate the situation. It would give you an opportunity to discuss what’s really