Playing Smart: Dinnertime Rituals

Make every day a Family Day and make a date for dinner.

Good food, great conversations and loads of laughs - that’s what family dinners are made of.  If busy schedules are making it hard for your family to pencil in regular family meals, take a “time out” to consider all the benefits of gathering around the dinner table because family dinners are about more than just sharing a meal.

Benefits of Family Dinners:

The more often children and teens eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink and use drugs. Children and teens who have frequent family dinners:

are at half the risk for substance abuse compared to teens who dine with their families infrequently

are less likely to have friends or classmates who use illicit drugs or abuse prescription drugs

have lower levels of tension and stress at home

are more likely to say that their parents are proud of them

are likelier to say they can confide in their parents

are likelier to get better grades in school

are more likely to be emotionally content and have positive peer relationships

have healthier eating habits

are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide

are less likely to try marijuana or have friends who use marijuana.

Source: Family Day

The evening meal may be the only time many families all sit down together. It can be a challenge to compete with TV and other enticing forms of entertainment, but when parents and children don’t make time to really talk to one another, a vital connection is lost. One great way to find out what everyone in the family has been doing and feeling all day is to seek out creative ways to make dinnertime fun. Think of the dinner hour as a special and enjoyable time to build the values you would like your children to live by. Here are some activities to try:

A Bit of Planning

Tabletop Crafts – Begin setting a festive mood for dinner by having your children make simple napkin rings. Cut inch-wide circles from the tube inside a roll of paper towels, then have the kids decorate and personalize the rings. Another possibility is for the children to design placemats for themselves or for each family member, finding some creative way to tie the illustrations to a theme of the day (such as “First Day of Autumn”). Or, kids can put together a simple centerpiece featuring toys, clay, trip souvenirs or other crafty materials. Any of these table decorations may make for stimulating conversations during the meal.

Basket of Inspiration Choose a small pretty basket for the dining table. Anytime someone in the family feels like it, he or she can drop a newspaper clipping or a note about some outside or personal event (“Johnny won the spelling bee at my school”) into the basket. At dinner, dip into the basket for a fresh discussion topic. You might set a “rule” that the person who deposited the clipping or note is the one who opens the discussion.

A Few Words

Reflect on it. Take turns saying something meaningful before everyone eats, whether one person per day takes the floor or everyone has a chance every day. For instance, take turns thanking the cook or ask the children to be thinking during the day about what they might say to get the conversation started at dinner. One child might like to recite high and low tides as listed in the morning’s newspaper, which reminds the family of the cycle of nature. Mom might like to read a couple of lines of poetry to the family at the start of dinner. Everyone can get involved in figuring out the poem’s possible meanings.

Eat a dictionary. Every night, present a new word to be learned. Either an adult can take charge, or family members can take turns bringing a word to the table. The simplest method is to have a large dictionary at the table and take turns randomly opening it to find a new word. The reader reads the word and its definition. Then go around the table, giving each person a chance to use the new word in a silly sentence.

Emphasize the positive. Rather than everyone always grumbling about what’s bugging them, teach your family how to focus on what’s good about their lives. At the start of dinner one night each week (one family calls it “Feel-Good Fridays”), go around the table responding to the question, “What did you do that made you feel good this week?” or “What happened this week that you’re grateful for?”

Read ’n’ eat. Choose a children’s book appropriate to your child’s age and read one chapter aloud per evening during dinner. You can either set a firm rule that no matter how caught up in the story everyone gets, it’s only one chapter per dinnertime. Or you can get the family back together to read another chapter after homework and chores are completed. You and those of your kids who are confident readers can take turns reading each night.

Try New Foods Foods ’R’ Us

Food Explorations – Introduce your family to brand-new tastes. For instance, purchase a small amount of several different melons, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, papaya and crenshaw. Cut them up and enjoy. Teach your kids the names of the different foods and discuss the differences in texture, color and flavor. Or try little bits of some new cheeses: aged cheddar, Swiss, jack, Roquefort, Irish blarney, stilton and so on. Perhaps your child would enjoy researching the cheese on the Internet to find out its origin and how long it’s typically aged.

Oddball Eating – Some families like to have a “crazy dinner” night. Ask for input from your children. If your children are 10 or older, let them set the menu all on their own. They can choose the ingredients when you go shopping, cook the meal, serve it and clean up. Your task is to pay for it and help out when necessary. For example, they might decide to use a small amount of fruit juice to color foods differently. How about blue cottage cheese or “green slime” (yogurt with food coloring)?

Food Awareness 101 Help your children become conscious of what they’re eating, whether it’s fast, frozen or homemade. Talk about where the food comes from. Does it grow on a tree? Was it an animal? Was it frozen on its way to the market? Did it come from a can or a cardboard box? If no one can answer a particular question, look up that food in an encyclopedia or on the Internet. For example, if you look up “banana,” you’ll find that a banana plant grows up to 30 feet tall, that there are also small red bananas and that the fibers of the leaves of the banana plant are used to build roofs for houses.

All in Good Fun

Girl enjoying dinnerTime to Laugh – Try having a nightly joke time. Everyone brings a joke to the table. Parents can help younger children find something to share. Libraries and bookstores have humor collections that appeal to young children.

Not So Trivial – Take the cards from one of the many trivia-style games, or make your own, possibly using a book of facts or the Internet for inspiration. Put the cards in a box on the dining table. Each night at the start of dinner, either Mom or Dad, or a child who can read well, chooses a card to present a trivia question to the family. As an additional benefit, some of the questions may relate to your child’s schoolwork, such as “How old do you have to be to be president?” or “When did U.S. women first get to vote?” Read the answer aloud if no one knows it.

Silly Sally One morning each week, choose the name of someone in the family. Secretly, that person plans something silly to do at dinner. The kicker is that the silly person has to keep a straight face and the others have to guess who’s being silly. Some silly ideas: Wear a fake moustache, hang a potholder from your ear, tell a totally unbelievable story.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14. You can learn more about the book on her Web site. Check out all of Susan's Playing Smart columns.