Sometimes, the last thing you want to do at the end of a long day is spend time preparing a family dinner so everyone can quickly gobble it down and get back to their homework/video games/tablets. We get it. But making the time to cook and eat with your kids can have significant benefits for their health and cognitive abilities.
Research published in the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Behavior found that dining as a family can help improve literacy among children, as family conversations build their vocabularies and story comprehension. Another study from CASAColumbia found that teens who frequently participated in family dinners were less likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs. Still not convinced? Data collected by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, indicated that families who ate meals together were typically healthier than those that didn't. Kids were more likely to chow down on fruits and veggies, and they were less likely to exhibit signs of depression.
All of that is well and good, but it doesn't solve a common problem nearly every parent has: How do you make family dinners fun for everyone so people actually want to sit down together every night? Here, we've gathered games and activities to help make dinnertime a breeze.
Enlist kids as your sous chefs
Create a restaurant vibe by asking your kids to help pick the menu and prep the meal. According to HealthyChildren.org, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics, cooking with children can sharpen cognitive skills, help them get in touch with their senses and improve dexterity. It makes sense too. To be a good chef, you not only have to have great taste, but you also need to understand basic math (measuring) and science (temperatures). Additionally, you have to demonstrate that you can comprehend and follow recipe directions.
Bonus: The more kids feel involved in selecting and preparing meals, the more likely they will be to eat up.
Ditch the screens & play games IRL
There are plenty of dinner games to play between bites to keep the whole family entertained. One particular game we love from The Family Dinner Project is the food poetry game. The rules are simple. Have everyone take a bite of their meals and ask them to briefly describe the taste, smell, textures and memories it brings up. Soon, you'll have a table surrounded by little Ralph Waldo Emersons.
Other great games include:
- A family-appropriate would you rather game in which you ask your kids silly questions like, "Would you rather be a shark or an eagle and why?"
- The things that grow game in which you go around the table and name as many flowers, plants or trees as you can in a minute
- The who's coming to dinner? game in which everyone picks a guest, deceased or living, and explains why they'd want to have them over to share a meal
Share the good, bad & the mediocre
Getting kids to talk about their days is something even celebrities like Kristen Bell struggle with from time to time. Yet parents everywhere continue to push through the "fines" and "goods" because they know how vital it is to take an interest in their kids' lives and keep lines of communication open.
To make the conversation more enticing, tweak your approach. Instead of asking, "How was your day?" ask something like, "What was one thing that made you smile today and why?" By honing in on something more specific and asking for elaboration, you eliminate the opportunity for those pesky one-word answers.
Expand your horizons (& your taste buds)
Travel the world from the comfort of your kitchen table. Each month, have your kids pick a new country to learn about and explore. Throughout the week, research that country's cultural traditions, holidays, music and cuisines. Once a week, (say, Friday), have your kids help you select and prepare a meal from the region. While eating, discuss some of the fascinating things you learned. Delicious meals, great conversation and, best yet, no passports required.