Ever since before we had kids, my husband and I held the belief that families benefit when they have dinner together. We hoped to make it a priority and, as much as humanly possible, protect family dinner time. It’s something he grew up with every night of his entire childhood.
I, on the other hand, only saw my family in passing as I ran from school to work and hit the McDonald’s drive-thru in between.Now that we actually have a family, I see clearly how in theory family dinners are wonderful, and how, in practice...well, they make you want to run for McDonald’s.
At every phase, the “family dinner” has been an ideal we’ve been chasing. You know the one in your fantasy head, where all the kids come when you call them, sit politely, and thank you for cooking? Then you all share the highlights of your days, pray for the neighbors, and Junior jumps in to help with dishes? Ugh. No. Someone sold me a bill of goods, because that is NOT how it goes down at my house. [She says while realizing this too must be her fault.]
First of all, no one comes to dinner. I call them at least three times. This is inexplicable because I’ve intentionally starved them for the last three hours, (because I still hold one last shred of hope they’ll eat my food). Finally, they arrive. The little one dissolves into whining immediately upon seeing what is on his plate. The older two have learned to choke back the complaints, but it doesn’t stop them from stirring the food around rather than eating it. (For anyone concerned I might actually be torturing them with terrible food, let me ease your mind. It’s not like it’s tofu or liver or something truly horrifying like a potato. It’s totally normal. Like pork chops and broccoli.)
The oldest launches into a diatribe about the last video game he played. My husband, who is acutely aware of his body’s impending starvation melt down, can’t. even. carry on this conversation, because, please can we pray so I can eat before we talk? The little one insists on praying. But he also insists on finishing his milk and lining up his silverware before he begins said prayer.
Finally we get to the Amen and by then tensions are high. My oldest decides to bite the bullet and shove ALL the porkchop in his mouth at once. The middle one decides to get up to find some ranch dressing or other such camouflage for hers. This makes the little one get out of his seat to show us a dance move. This makes the oldest get up to mimic the dance move (now trying not to choke) and then Dad yells at everyone to get back in their seats. Repeat while counting to infinity.
I know people that have given up. They’ll just put the TV on and eat in silence. I’m not going to lie to you, that sounds amazing. Sadly, you can’t see our TV from the table. Others just succumb to the sports schedules. Eat and run, eat in shifts, eat by yourself. That also sounds amazing. Sadly, sports is over for everyone in my family by 5 PM. For better or for worse, after 11 years, the family dinner has been established. It’s basically scheduled torture. So we’re left finding ways to make it work.
There are only two ways I’ve found to make dinner more pleasant. Number one, (and this is no joke fool proof), cook food that they like. After careful observation, I have noted that when we call Pizza Hut, everyone comes running to the table. No one complains. No one gets out of their seat to dance. They just sit there and eat. It’s awesome. Unfortunately, I can’t feed them garbage every night. I feel like it’s kind of my job to feed them meat and vegetables and healthy carbs. Sorry, kids. Your mom is the meanest. So mostly it’s option 2. Far less effective, but it can work: Dinner Table Games.
If you can manage to engage them, (i.e. distract them from the fact that they’re sitting and eating), you’ll have the win. Asking “How was your day?” will not cut it. The little ones can’t remember their days and the big ones don’t want to. But games, I have found, will draw them in. And every once in awhile, I’ll see a glimpse of the idyllic family dinner I always hoped for. Here are the go-to Dinner Table Games I use, ranked in order of their success at keeping rear ends in seats and forks in motion:
Question of the Day
This one really works! Each day ask an ice-breaker question (lists abound online) and give everyone a chance to answer. Questions like “How would you spend $1 million?” to “If you could tame and keep any wild animal, which one would you choose?” really get kids’ imaginations going and lead to fun conversation.
Good, Bad, and Weird
This is a wonderful way to extract specific details from kids about their days. Everyone has to go around and say something good, something bad, and something weird that happened to them that day.
Highs and Lows
This is another one designed to help kids remember and share their days’ experiences. Everyone shares the high point and the low point of their day.
A classic game my grandmother used to play with me to help me fall asleep on Christmas Eve. Whoever is “it” thinks of a person, place, or animal and everyone else gets to ask 20 yes or no questions (as a group) to guess what it is.
The Movie Quote Game
Everyone gets a turn to say a movie quote, while everyone else tries to guess what movie it’s from. If your family is musical, this can work with song lyrics or humming tunes as well.
Would You Rather?
You can either pre-print a list from the internet or make these up on the fly. Usually the goal is to present two impossible or horrible scenarios, and see which one your kid thinks is worse. I also like to present two choices that are both supremely desirable and see which one they think is better.
This might not be the best at the dinner table since you actually have to pull out cards (and it doesn’t exactly facilitate conversation…) but sometimes you’re desperate! My kids LOVE Uno and rarely pass up a chance to play. It brings a certain amount of chaos when you start using props at the table, but once in awhile you just have to mix it up.
This is a board game, so, like Uno it could introduce some chaos to your table. Each person puts on a headband and gets a game card that they put into the headband. They don’t know what’s on the card and everyone else has to give them clues as to what they are. Come to think of it, I think there are some phone apps that have similar games.
This game will produce hilarity, but it ranks poorly in effectiveness at getting kids to stay in their seats. In fact it will pretty much guarantee they’ll get up so they can whisper in each other’s ears while smearing jelly on each other. Still, playing this with kids is beyond funny. So, a good one to keep in your back pocket...maybe for when Dad is out of town and a little more monkey business than usual will fly.