7 Ways to Make Family Mealtime Fun

Turn on music, get kids cooking, and more ideas for making family dinner fun

Making dinner together is a fun family routine everyone benefits from. Getty Images/Skynesher

You've probably heard about the many benefits for kids that have been linked to eating family dinners together on a regular basis, such as an increased likelihood that kids will eat healthier diets, have greater academic achievement, and even experience lower rates of depression and substance abuse. But no matter how good regular family dinners may be for kids' development, the fact is that parents and kids aren't likely to want to regularly sit down together for meals if it feels more like a chore than something that they look forward to.

"It's gotta be fun; if not, no one is gonna want to keep trying," says Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to give families the tools and information to incorporate family dinners into their lives.

To make family dinners something everyone looks forward to, try these ideas:

1. Have kids to help buy, prep, and cook dinner. School-age kids are very interested in helping, and dinnertime is an excellent opportunity not only to get kids involved, but to establish healthy eating habits in kids. (Plus, it can be a fun family activity to do with kids!) Start by having kids help decide which meals you're gonna make (flip through some cookbooks, look online for some recipes) and then go shopping together. Then go shopping for those foods and prepare meals together. Even young children can help tear lettuce for a salad or help carry silverware to the table and set it for dinner.

2. Share the load. Leaving the cooking and cleanup to one parent is no fun, and is a missed opportunity to teach kids important things like how to be a contributing member of the team--your family unit. (This is one of the many reasons why having kids do chores regularly is important for their development.) Everyone should do their part, whether it's cooking, setting the table, clearing the dishes, or cleaning up.

3. Let kids help choose music. Classical? Cool jazz? Some favorite kids' songs? As long as it isn't too loud and you can talk over the music to hear each other talk over dinner, allow your child to choose some music and have a family vote to see what will go on the playlist. Save the rockin' louder tunes--steering clear of songs with inappropriate lyrics--for dinner cleanup.

4. Talk with your spouse beforehand about rules of conversations. Will you encourage kids to debate topics or do you want to only stick to subjects that won't lead to disagreements? If one parent wants to talk about anything but the other parent wants to make the table conflict-free, it's better to agree on what you want to do ahead of time, suggests Barendsen. So if you and your partner don't agree on a political issue or other hot-button topic, either show your child how two grownups can disagree but discuss respectfully or decide to avoid such conversations at the dinner table. Either way, talking about subjects--and including kids--is a great way to set an example of how to discuss issues, present opinions, and listen respectfully.

5. Keep fights off the table. Speaking of conflicts, encourage kids to leave disagreements and grievances out of dinner conversations as much as possible. Let them know that you'd be happy to help them resolve any differences or speak in private if they need your time and attention, but encourage kids to make dinnertime about respect and peace.

6. Think of some conversation starters beforehand. The Family Dinner Project has some great ideas for conversation starters, broken down by kids' age groups. And sharing something about yourself, such as a story from your childhood or what you loved about a recent book you read or movie you saw together, is a great way to get closer to your child and show her that you love and value her enough to share your thoughts and feelings with her.

7. Do be silly! Dinner at home doesn't have to be all about good table manners or quiet dining, like at a restaurant. While kids shouldn't run around during dinner, they can certainly get silly and play games. Think of silly stories, having each family member contribute a part to the story as you create something silly together. Parents can fill out a Mad Libs (a classic kids' favorite) and read them out loud when they're done. After dinner, you can even get a little exercise in as you dance to music while cleaning up the dinner table and kitchen.

Think of your own ideas for making mealtime fun for your own family and keep laughter and love as your focus as you create your own routines for fun family dinners. You and your kids will all benefit physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually!

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