10 Ways to Make Mealtime Fun

10 Ways to Make Mealtime Fun

by Charlotte Meryman
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Having dinner together builds strong bonds. But getting kids to sit down, eat up, and share in the conversation isn't always easy. These ideas from our readers will add extra helpings of smiles and laughs to every meal.

Ditch the Dinner Table
Who doesn't love a picnic — especially in the comfort of your own living room? For the Caylors of New Castle, Pennsylvania, it's all about the cozy sense of togetherness. The family of six gathers around an old picnic quilt spread on the floor two or three times a week, feasting on homemade pizza or pasta and lots of healthy sliced fruits and veggies. Whether they're watching a DVD, playing cards, or filling out Mad Libs, says mom Tauni, "we spend a lot more time chatting and just being relaxed and enjoying each other's company. Meals tend to last longer than they do at the table."

Point Out the Piggy
Teaching etiquette at the table doesn't require being sedate and stuffy. Lisa Beach proves this point by keeping a silly picture of a pig in the kitchen of her Oviedo, Florida, home. If one family member spots another using poor manners, he or she playfully points out the infraction and announces, "You're the piggy!" The offender keeps the picture until someone else makes a misstep. Whoever has the porker at the end of the meal clears the dishes. The best part for Beach's two kids: catching a parent being a piggy!

Play While You Eat
Keep the conversation flowing with these clever table-talk games:

  • Three Things
    The Kelley family of Aiken, South Carolina, fibs for fun as they dine. Taking turns, each family member reports on three things about his or her day. The catch: two are true, one is not. The others have to guess what didn't happen. Kids Jordan and Jacob love trying to stump their parents, and sometimes they do, "even though I work at their school!" marvels mom Jennifer.
  • Find the Pattern
    Taking turns recounting the day's high and low points is a popular mealtime ritual. The Barfields of Hartsville, South Carolina, put a unique twist on this idea: A member of the family of six is "in charge" at each meal, calling on the others one at a time to talk about their day. Once everyone has spoken, the others try to figure out the pattern the leader used in determining whom to call on when. Was it shortest hair to longest? Reverse alphabetical order? "Everyone always wanted to go first," says mom Kelly, so they invented the pattern game as a fun way to mix things up.
  • Serve It Small
    The four Dibble kids of Vista, California, forget their finicky eating habits when they're dreaming up new mini menus to try, says mom Josephine. They love to make mini burgers and mini meatballs and serve them with itsy-bitsy sides and extras like petite peas, drinks in juice glasses, and even a tiny flower bouquet as a centerpiece. "It's about creativity and working together as a family to make something fun to eat," says Josephine.

Use Silly Names for New Foods
Inspired by a favorite book, I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato, the Pearlman kids of Goleta, California, work up the nerve to taste new foods by calling them funny names. Snap peas become "space beads," and tomatoes are "moonsquirters." Goofy and even gross names are great: when dad Justin says, "That's not rice, those are rare albino mealy bugs!" his three kids want to eat even more.

Mix Up Your Tableware
As many parents told us, kids eat better and sit longer when they're nibbling their peas from a pointy "spear" and sipping their milk from a tiny teacup. Here are a few tools our readers use to liven things up at the table: chopsticks, toothpicks, wood skewers, or a toy tea set.

Let Kids Cook
Once a month, Diedrich Ohlandt, age 11, and his sister, Alice, 9, of Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, each get to be "chef for a day." They take turns planning a menu, helping to shop for ingredients, and cooking and serving the meal. "They're really proud to be able to bring something to the table," says mom Pamela. The rest of the family gets to savor not just the eats but also the anticipation: "It's always exciting. My daughter can't wait to see what my son's creation will be."

Take a Vote
When the members of the Wall family of Florence, Massachusetts, try a new recipe, they vote on it. If four out of the five give the thumbs up, it goes in a binder they call "the keeper" — because "when the kids like a recipe, they say, 'It's a keeper!'" says mom Ellen, an associate editor. Once a week, each kid gets to choose a dish from the keeper and help cook it. This democratic process is a big win for all: voting gets the kids to try new dishes, setting the menu gives them a sense of control, and doing meal prep affords quality time with Mom or Dad.

Love Your Leftovers
"Clear out the fridge" meals are eagerly anticipated at the home of L. Kae Graniel of Honolulu. When it's time to play Mom's Buffet, she heats leftovers and sets them out buffet style, then everyone draws numbers to see who gets to go through the line first. "The kids are full of suspense wondering whether their favorite item will be taken by the time they get through the line," she says. They also play Microwave Madness, in which each family member has 60 seconds to put together a plate from the fridge. All food must be microwaved or eaten as is (no pots and pans allowed), and must make up a balanced meal. If they fail to complete their mission, either Mom gets to fill the plate for them or they wait until everyone else has had a turn and then try again.

Celebrate Victories
Finally, our readers love to transform meals into occasions by singling out a family member especially deserving of recognition. To mark special days or cheer triumphs such as learning to write the alphabet, the Ciavolas of Greensboro, Georgia, set a place of honor with a bright red plate. At dinner's end, the honoree signs the back of the plate — a happy ending to a happy meal.

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