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Fun Ways To Get Kids Engaged At The Dinner Table

By Jen Murphy

As the holidays approach, families will gather around the dinner table for quality time together that extends beyond just passing the peas. So I’ve been giving some thought to ways we can make this time more meaningful and fun for everyone.

Let’s be honest: Dinnertime is not always a Norman Rockwell painting. The meal at the end of the day can be a source of stress — or a battle of wills. After working to prepare food and getting everyone to sit down, the last thing you want to hear is, “Yuck!” or a whiny complaint about a sibling. However, dinnertime can also become a highlight after a long day — one last opportunity to connect, laugh, and relax as a family. But that takes some planning.

Prepare for dinner as an activity? Yes, absolutely! Just as you would prepare a meal using a recipe, you can put some thought into ways family members can share and laugh while everyone eats.

Consider starting the meal with some sort of tradition. In our family, we share “gratefuls.” Everyone talks about something they are grateful for that day. Small or large, anything counts. It could be gratitude for pizza day in the cafeteria, or something bigger, like earning a good grade on a test. No one is allowed to disagree or belittle the “grateful.”

Other ideas include: asking everyone to share something funny that happened, a good piece of trivia, discussing an event in the news, or even just saying grace together. The point is to “set the stage” for the rest of the meal: Everyone participates, everyone listens, and everyone is respectful. It may be surprising how many of these opening moments lead to real, meaningful conversations.

After the “opening credits, ” the key to keeping things enjoyable is simply guiding kids in appropriate directions. In our family, we sometimes use conversation games like Table Topics, Never Have I Ever, and conversation starter stones, all of which can be purchased online. Even better, come up with your own questions and conversation topics and turn them into a craft project. Other ideas can be found at www.thefamilydinnerproject.org

This time of year, an easy craft-turned-conversation-starter is the Grateful Tree. The tree becomes a centerpiece for your table and can be added to each day. Have your kids cut up some paper leaves and write what they are grateful for on each leaf every day. The “tree” can be made from a paper towel roll, a stick from your yard, or drawn onto a poster board. You can hang or tape your leaves onto the branches. In a few weeks, your tree will be full! It’s a nice reminder of all the good your family appreciates.

Of course, there will still be times when you get stuck in a rut: bickering siblings, same questions about how school was, and those squirrely arms and legs not keeping still. But a bit of structure will keep everyone in the family focused on sharing and enjoying time with one another, rather than falling into old routines. Pretty soon, you’ll find that you’re getting to know each other on a different level. We have found that it’s well worth the effort, and the long-term payoff is huge. So here’s to more talking!

Jen Murphy is a working mom with two teenagers. She has more than 20 years of experience working with at-risk youth and is a former middle school teacher. She and her family love living in northern Michigan with their chickens, goats and bees. 

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