This is where my children and I differ on the purpose of family dinner. It’s not the food! I know I am never going to please every single pallet at the table. It’s just not going to happen. My goal is that we can spend 30 or so minutes as a family all sharing a piece of our lives with everyone. Sadly, my kids, like a lot of kids today, don’t agree.
The thing is, it is so important to the health of our kids to make sure family dinners happen. According to Psychology Today, teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors when they eat meals regularly with the family. So how does a parent wrangle the family together at least 4-5 nights per week without the battle? Again, the answer is not the food! Well maybe it’s the food a little bit, but the main way to make sure that family dinners happen, is to be creative.
1. Make it dinner AND a movie.
In this house, Disney and Marvel will bring the kids in from the woodwork. So, we do a lot of movie nights with these themes. The younger kids used to really love Dr. Seuss, so when the Lorax came out on DVD, we created a dinner and a movie night around the Dr. Seuss books. It included green eggs and ham of course, our version of Whoville Pudding (tapioca), and fruit salad with fish gummies mixed in. For dessert we had Truffula Tree cupcakes made from Pirouline Cookies and Cotton Candy.
We usually try to eat before the movie, so that we don’t miss out on the connections, and we make dinner prep a family project for even more interaction. On occasion, our kids have been so excited about a particular movie that we printed out trivia or activity coloring pages we found on the internet to include to the evening. Because they tend to take a lot of time, we usually do them on the weekends, but they can be great for non-school days too.
2. Make it a breakfast.
As our family has grown, we find it increasingly difficult to coordinate everyone’s schedules, so the invention of family breakfast was born. And on occasion, family lunch will work for everyone. The beauty of family breakfast, is that it works for my night shift husband to arrive after work, and those that work after school jobs are available too. This does mean that I have to get up extra early if I am the one making breakfast, but it is a small sacrifice to get the family time. My kids’ favorite part is that this meal often includes bacon. Whatever gets them to the table, I say.
3. Take family dinner to where the action is.
Over the years we have eaten family dinner at baseball games, soccer games or anywhere else my kids happened to have a “can’t miss” activity happening during dinner time. Granted we are the weird family bringing in large coolers, and half the kitchen to the games, but it is worth the price of looking a bit odd. I worked outside the home when my three oldest boys all played baseball. so there were days I would get home with literally a half hour until we had to leave for the big game. This meant that I had to spend one Saturday per month making meals that I could freeze until game nights. I would then thaw them while at work and heat them up just before we had to leave. Again, the sacrifice of one Saturday afternoon was worth the family time, especially for the year we had a baseball game four nights a week plus tournaments almost every weekend.
4. Play a trivia game or use a fun conversation starter.
We have done everything from Apples to Apples, Trivia, stories using place mats and conversation starters to make meal time more interesting. These are ideal for the evenings when everyone is tired and the conversation is dull, or when there was some sort of drama going on just before dinner and no one wanted to even look at each other let alone speak. But that never happens, right? Apples to Apples provides some humor as the players try to match two words which most of the time would never match under other circumstances. This makes it a great option for nights when you need to break through the elephant in the room. We use stories during family out-to-eat meals, and the trivia or conversation starters are great for nights when meal time has gotten dull.
5. Take turns planning it.
As I mentioned, I could not possibly make everyone happy during family meal time. What is one child’s favorite thing, the other one hates with a passion. So to cure this issue, we share the planning of our family dinners. That way everyone gets to have a night once in a while that they get exactly what they want, and they all get to feel what it’s like to have someone hate your hard work. I love it when I get to kill to birds. When the kids are involved in planning, we don’t seem to have nearly as many whiny comments. They don’t want anyone else to whine during their meal, so they have learned not to whine during other’s nights either. The biggest issue with this option, is that the skill levels vary greatly in our house, so it may be necessary to partner an older and younger child, or to leave this one to just the older kids.
Whatever you come up with to get your family together, the important thing is that it happens. So get creative and run with it. You may even want to plan a family meeting to get ideas from everyone. And if you are finding that having family meals is difficult, start small with maybe one or two meals per week and work your way up from there.
If you have a great idea for family meal time, please share it in the comments. I would love to share ideas to keep things fresh!