Increasingly, research is showing that family meal times are integral to family bonding. But just because everyone is present doesn't mean that everyone is tuned in. It's easy to fall into a rut, where we find ourselves asking, "How was your day?" with no real expectation (or desire) to hear more than "Fine" in response. Here are some ideas for making mealtimes more fun for everyone (while building memories, and maybe even a few skills in the process).
The Guessing Game (ages 3+)
This game not only lets family members share what's new but also tests how much everyone's been paying attention. Family members take turns shooting questions at each other while everyone else takes turns answering from memory or by guessing until someone gets it right. Kids aged 3-6 might ask simpler questions like "Who is my best friend?" while older children could ask "What is the subject of the essay I'm working on?" or "Who is my favourite superhero?" Parents can use the opportunity to loop kids into their professional lives with questions like, "What is dad's designation?" or "What is mom's latest project about?" or to build a family narrative by asking, "How did grandpa get the idea for his business?" or "Why did mom get in trouble with the headmaster in school?" (Read more about the importance of family narratives here.) You can play in teams or individually.
Be Kind (5+)
Fact: Practicing kindness makes people happier, and this simple game helps inculcate the value in a fun way. Take a deck of cards and turn them into Kindness Cards with actions that everyone in the family can do. (You can model this Smile Deck, and if you run short of kind acts suitable for kids, check here.) Once a week at dinner, each family member picks a card and pledges to do the act by the following week. For example, if mom picks a card saying, "Help someone with a chore without being asked," she has one week to do it. The following week, everyone reports back on their compassionate tasks, sharing who were the recipients and how they felt after accomplishing the kind act.
This is similar to the Be Kind game, but Mini-Thanksgiving is more reflective and can be played as frequently as you want. During the meal, everyone takes turns saying what they are grateful for and why. It could be something big or something little, something tangible (like a tasty breakfast) or intangible (getting off work early) -- the only rule is that whatever you're thankful for must have occurred that same day. It's a fun way of getting to know what actually matters to your kids (and vice versa) and it helps kids learn to look on the bright side, no matter how difficult of a day they might have had.
It's A Problem (4-8)
Mealtimes are a great opportunity to teach kids about sharing -- and why not sneak some math into it at the same time? Give your child problems like: It's a problem: We have 6 chapattis at the table, but there are 4 of us. How will you divide the chapattis so everyone gets an equal amount? For young kids, it introduces them to problem solving and division in a creative way (don't be surprised if a solution is one for each family member and two for the family pet!), and for older kids, it's a hands-on way to practice maths. If it feels too much like homework, change the incentives -- like playing the game with cake.
My Pizza Pie (9-12)
For older kids familiar with the concepts of area and perimeter, you can combine pizza and maths practice. Just keep a measuring tape handy the next time you make or order a pizza. Measure the diameter of the pizza and help your kids calculate its circumference and area. Next, count the number of pieces and divide the area so you know the area of each piece. Save this for when you need a night with little chatter - your kids will likely work in silence, except for the sound of pizza-chomping. Once everyone has finished eating, they have to say how much pizza they ate in terms of area (or, for a change, in terms of percentage). Why didn't someone think to combine math and pepperoni when we were in school?
True Lies (7+)
This exercise in creativity lets parents peek into their child's life in a way likely to be more successful than the bland request, "Tell me about your day" (especially if you have a teen). Each family member narrates a fictional story - with one small detail or aspect that is true. For example, "Today, I bunked school to climb a mountain. When I reached the top, I was tired and slipped. I grazed my leg on a rock and toppled down the mountainside. If it wasn't for the giant who lived in a nearby cave, I wouldn't be here right now." The rest of the family members guess what is the true detail -- the grazed leg, or bunking school? Storytelling fosters imagination, and hopefully, also makes some of the hard truths easier to tell.
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