Families that practice good communication — whether it be in a vehicle or at the dinner table — are more likely to have children that are substance- free, notes the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. But the family dinner ritual brings with it many other benefits, including the opportunity for kids to learn social skills.
For the modern family, a nightly dinnertime — where everyone is in attendance — may be impractical or even impossible, but that doesn't mean the idea should be abandoned altogether. The point is not what's served, but rather engaging children in meaningful conversation and establishing dinnertime as a family routine.
If you're seriously strapped for time and energy, take advantage of readily available shortcuts such as take-out and frozen food. Frozen pizza with a salad becomes a feast when served on fancy dishes and colorful placemats, and you needn't sacrifice nutrition for the sake of convenience. Take-out roast chicken with veggies, pad thai and chicken burritos are all vitamin-packed dinner options.
One creative family we know started this tradition years ago. Their children, who are now in high school and college, recall it fondly.
The premise: Eat like a Viking warrior — with your hands! No silverware is allowed.
The menu: Let each child take a turn selecting the evening's menu. Encourage them to pick foods that are fun to eat with the hands — the messier the better! Some ideas include spaghetti and ice cream.
Tips: Dress the part! Encourage your kids to make helmets and shields out of materials you have around the house. Cover the dining table or picnic area with a plastic tablecloth, for easy clean-up. Want to make this a movie night? Maybe you can watch How to Train Your Dragon!
This one is a Saturday night tradition at our house.
The premise: Just as it sounds.
The menu: Select food to go along with the theme of the evening's feature, or let each child pick his favorite menu (within reason). Some suggestions: "Lady and the Tramp" featuring spaghetti and meatballs or "Finding Nemo" featuring fish and chips.
Tips: Eat dinner first, then for a treat serve dessert in the family room while watching the movie.
The premise: Have foods for dinner that represent every main color of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.
The menu: Try baby carrots and sliced celery for an appetizer or as a side dish. A pasta dish with red sauce, with yellow squash or yellow bell peppers mixed in or on the side, can be the main course. Follow up with blueberry cobbler or another berry treat for dessert. As for the color violet, add a few drops each of red and blue food coloring to whipped cream for the dessert, or to ranch dressing to make a purple dip to serve along with the veggies.
The premise: Letting the kids get creative in the kitchen!
The menu: Let the kids help design the menu, crafted around an ethnic or seasonal theme. How about pizza night or garden and grilling? Assign each child an age-appropriate task: The youngest kids can tear up lettuce for a salad, your middle kids will love to roll out pie dough and older, more responsible kids can cut veggies and stir sauces with supervision.
Tips: Expect to get messy — play clothes and aprons are strongly suggested!
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