Get playful: how to make dinnertime fun with the kids

There’s more to dinner time than just eating. From shopping, cooking or even cleaning up, these ideas will help you create playful family time around the table.

To get the most out of the family table, it’s time to learn how to play with your food.

When Anne talks to families about their dinner goals, the focus is usually on eating more healthily or getting more help in the kitchen. But after working with the Family Dinner Project, they are surprised by what happened.

“They were enjoying dinners more and there was more conversation, more laughter and more fun,” says Anne. “The families we surveyed thought it was about the lasagne or the roast chicken, but what they found they enjoyed the most is what happened once they were gathered around the table.”

A number of studies also support the importance of playfulness at the dinner table. A study of 1492 children in Quebec, Canada, found that the quality of the meal environment (measured by whether families enjoyed the meal and had an opportunity to talk) predicted higher levels of fitness, lower soft drink consumption and fewer behavioural problems among six to 10-year-olds.

Every time you gather as a family around the table, remember to create one fun and playful moment that everyone at the table can share. You can make shapes and faces out of food, make a recipe a parent loved as a child, play table games or pose an unusual question of the day.

“As our worlds have become increasingly virtual, cooking is one of the rare activities that involves our senses, allows us to make things with our hands, and is an activity that we can do together,” says Anne. “Making food is a form of play and each of its properties can become a focus of invention.”

If you’re looking for ways to inject fun into eating together and boost your family connections, look for opportunities when shopping, cooking or even cleaning up. Below are some ideas from the Family Dinner Project:

Grocery adventures

Mystery foods

Take your children to the supermarket and ask them to pick out a fruit or vegetable they have never seen before or never eaten at home. Then work to incorporate this new food into a meal.

Grocery scavenger hunt

Turn grocery shopping into a game by making it a scavenger hunt. You can use the game to find regular grocery staples or to add unusual items. For example: “Pick a food using the first letter of your name,” or, “Pick fruits and vegetables from all the colours of the rainbow.”

Fun with food prep

Play with shape and size

Kids love animal pancakes and food with faces. Anne notes that just playing with size, such as cutting sandwiches into mini bites, appeals to many children.

Be the chef

At the end of a family meal, one family member can select one or two ingredients that must be included in the next meal. Or you can pick a single ingredient that has to be included in every dish.

Vegetable collage

Put the elements of a salad on separate plates on the table – red peppers, cucumbers, avocado, carrot sticks, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, fruit and nuts. Then let your kids create silly faces, animals, cars, houses or whatever they want. Anne notes that a tomato on top of a cucumber slice looks like an eyeball, avocado slices make eyebrows and lettuce makes great hair. Celebrate everyone’s creativity, then give them a favourite dressing for dip and let them eat their work.

Games at the table

Guess the ingredient

Ask everyone around the table to guess all the ingredients in a casserole or new dish.

Plan a big day out

The table is a great place to brainstorm future fun, whether it’s a trip to a nearby amusement park or a fantasy weekend away. Parents are often surprised by the ideas their kids have.

I Spy

It’s not just for car trips. The I Spy game is a great way to engage kids at the dinner table.

Close your eyes

How many forks are on the table? What colour shirt is the person next to you wearing? Who has an empty water glass? There are many ways to turn your table into a guessing game.

Best and worst

A great game and conversation starter for any age. What are the best and worst things that happened today?

Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award- winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.


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