With more time on our hands, it’s no surprise that home cooking and family mealtimes are seeing a renaissance in the U.S.
In fact, according to a September 2020 poll by the FMI Foundation, 94% of Americans say they’re cooking the same amount or more than before the COVID-19 pandemic and about 75% are having the same amount or more family meals, whether in-person or virtually.
Something else that’s changed getting everyone involved in meal preparation which has become more important for families, a November 2020 study in the journal Food Quality and Preference found.
That’s good news, especially because research shows getting kids in the kitchen is a great way to encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables and eat healthier overall.
With 21 meals a week—plus snacks!—gathering around the table provides kids with a sense of predictability and stability and allows families to connect and create stronger bonds, particularly during these uncertain times.
“Family mealtime has never been more important than it is during the pandemic,” Dr. Anne Fishel, executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project told me in a recent episode of the Food Issues podcast. “It’s a way of once a day or twice a day saying this is who we are as a family.”
HOW TO MAKE FAMILY MEALTIMES FUN
Between picky eating, kids who refuse to sit at the dinner table, and all the distractions we have to contend with, trying to make mealtimes fun sounds like an afterthought, but with these simple, easy strategies taken from my interview with Dr. Fishel, you can have enjoyable meals in no time.
1. HOLD A Q&A
Pre-COVID-19, relying on basic questions like how was your day? may have been enough to get the dinnertime conversation going.
Yet now that we’re all working and learning from home, we have to get a bit more creative when we connect which can also make mealtimes fun.
One idea is to fill a mason jar with conversation starters. Some fun questions you to try include:
“If you had a super-power what would it be and how would you use it?”
“Name a character in a book that you’d want as a friend.”
“What are two things you’re thankful for today?”
Depending on their ages, your kids can help write them which is a great way to get them involved.
Need more ideas? Check out this list from The Family Dinner Project.
2. SWITCH UP DINNER
To make mealtimes fun, think about ways to change how you serve and eat the food.
For example, put a tablecloth or blanket on the floor and have a picnic. Or ask everyone to sit in a different chair at the table or take dinner to another room—even the bedroom with a serving tray.
You could eat dinner backward so if you’re serving dessert, eat it first—your kids definitely won’t complain.
3. MAKE FAMILY MEALTIMES FUN WITH GAMES
There are so many games you can play with your family at the dinner table to help everyone de-compress from the day and provide a lot of meaningful conversation and connection.
One game you can try is 20 Questions About a Family Memory. Here’s how it works: Everyone gets a chance to think about a family memory where everyone in the family was present. Then everyone has to ask yes/no questions to figure out what the memory is. Were we on vacation? We were under the age of 6? And so on.
Not only can this help kids remember that you’ve had experiences together as a family before COVID-19, but it’s also interesting for you when you learn what your kids remember the most. It’s also an opportunity for your kids to learn what memories you cherish.
4. SHARE FAMILY STORIES
Sharing family stories is a way for kids to learn and connect and help them build resiliency.
Research shows that children who share family meals know more about their family history, have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers, and have higher resilience when they’re faced with adversity.
Talk to your kids about family members who survived world events like wars, the Great Depression, or a health epidemic. You can take it a step further and ask your kids what advice they think that family member would have for your family now during the pandemic.
You can also share your own stories of how you overcame adversity and became more resilient—whether it’s a job loss, an illness, or a challenging situation.
5. HAVE AN IRON CHEF COMPETITION TO MAKE FAMILY MEALTIMES FUN
Virtual meals may not be the same as they are in-person, but cooking with family or friends over Zoom is a great way to make mealtimes fun.
You can cook your own dish, or try cooking the same recipe together.
You can also host an “Iron Chef”-like competition. Each team suggests an ingredient and then everyone has to make their own meal with all three ingredients. Then, enjoy the meal together and talk about how it turned out—so fun!
6. HAVE A THEME NIGHT
When life is hectic and there’s no time to cook, I have “buffet night,” which is really just a night that I pull all the leftovers out and let my kids pick what they want to eat.
You can have other types of theme nights too:
Meatless Mondays, Try it or Taco Tuesdays, Wake-up Wednesdays (breakfast for dinner), Thrifty Thursdays (budget-friendly foods) or Favorite Fridays, when one member of the family gets to decide what’s for dinner.
Related: 7 Budget-Friendly Healthy Foods
Or you can have a theme night centered around a specific type of cuisine. For example, you can make Monte Cristo sandwiches and play French music.
7. HOST A DINNER AND A MOVIE TO MAKE FAMILY MEALTIMES FUN
Instead of movie night, make it a dinner and a movie night with themed foods. Some movie picks that work well include Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Chicken Little, or Frozen.
8. RE-THINK DINNER
If you and your kids are getting bored with the same old meals every week, one of the best ways to make mealtimes fun is to forget dinner altogether.
Instead, you can serve breakfast for dinner. Try eggs, bacon and toast, pancakes, waffles, or an egg wrap. Anything will do and you’re kids will love it.
Or you can try an all-appetizer or all snack-foods dinner with fruits, vegetables, dips, crackers, and mini-versions of your family’s favorite foods like meatballs, tacos, and pizza.
Another way to make mealtimes fun—and one I loved as a kid—was to have a fondue night. With a fondue pot, you can try bread and cheese, pigs in a blanket, and strawberries with chocolate sauce.
9. GET KIDS COOKING
If your kids are old enough, you can have them cook part—or an entire meal.
Teaching your kids how to cook encourages healthy eating habits, can prevent picky eating, builds confidence, and can mealtimes fun.
Of course, if cooking isn’t your thing, the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse is a great place to start.