Looking for ways to add a smile to mealtimes for your family or household? Through a bit of trial and error at our place over the years we’ve picked up a few simple tips to make meals fun.
But why is this important? There’s some science behind the habit of table time, says Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business: “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control and more confidence.” Not that the eating together itself delivers those magic results, but that the habit of spending time together over a meal builds a home environment that helps kids grow better.
So, we know having meals together is good for us, but it’s not always possible, let alone always fun. We’ve found in our own household that the challenge of everybody’s full schedules means dinner isn’t always eaten together. There are times when it isn’t always fun, either: we’ve witnessed cheerfulness, laughing, sullenness, talking (lots of talking), laughing, shouting, crying, tears, slamming doors, screaming, silence, joking, more talking and more laughing – all in the space of one mealtime.
Fortunately we’ve also made a lot of good memories from all those dinners at the table over the years.
Here are some of my tips for making mealtime a little more fun:
1. Play a game
When was the last time you played a game together? Games that include everybody, are relatively quick and don’t involve a lot of special equipment are perfect for the dinner table. Even better, find a game that’s not super competitive. Collaborative, build a story, everybody laugh together games probably set a better tone for a meal together.
See if you can find a game that suits the age and stage of the people in your household. We had family bingo at the top of our list for a while when our girls were younger, and we liked Rory’s Story Cubes as communal story starters.
These days we play games that use more verbal and written skills, eg the dictionary game or the drawing and story game. Bonus – the only equipment required is a pen and paper and a dictionary.
Whatever the game, keep it short, fun, and inclusive.
2. Invite someone to join you.
Statistics tell us that our social capital has declined over the years as less of us invite guests in our home (read more on the statistics of Australia’s social capital in this article here).
Remember that showing hospitality like this doesn’t need to be a table full of fancy food. You could throw a few extra vegetables in the stir fry, make toasted sandwiches together, or ask your friends to pick up something to bring on the way (we’ve tried each of these). If welcoming someone into your home is really in the too hard basket, it’s perfectly OK to meet them to eat together out somewhere. Either way, adding an extra chair or two and stretching the size of your table is one way to make meals more fun.
3. Go outside
Isn’t it funny how eating the same food can have more of a fun feel when you take it somewhere else to eat it, even if that is the outdoor table on your back deck or balcony? If you have some grass near your back door, throw a towel down and have a picnic. I think we ate outside nearly every dinner time (and every breakfast, for that matter) last summer, just because we could.
4. Set something on fire
What better way to liven things up a little? Lighting a few candles at the dinner table is another easy way to lend a sense of occasion to your meal. I’m not really a big candle person, to be honest, but the kids love it when we have candles with dinner, it just feels a little more special, even if all you are celebrating is “it’s Wednesday”.
What about setting fire to your food, or at least cooking it at the table? Fire up your dinner time with flambé, fondue, sukiyaki or just an electric frypan.
I’ve set fire to our dessert by making a Bombe Alaska for a couple of celebrations here the last year or so. It’s actually not that difficult, just freeze a couple of layers of cake and icecream together and cover with Italian meringue. The oohs and aahs and attention it got was so worth it! (Gordon Ramsay has some good instructions for a mini version here, and lighting the liqueur in a small pan before pouring it over the dessert was also a good tip.)
5. Make a scene!
We found this watermelon shark idea on Pinterest and have done it a couple of times now. Making a pumpkin soup bowl out of the whole pumpkin was another one that worked, and this chocolate Christmas scene:
There are plenty of simple but fun food ideas out there waiting to try. It doesn’t have to be quite as elaborate as Heston Blumenthal’s edible scenes, although they are fun to watch, like this garden and insect scene.
6. Go global
Eat food from another culture. Pick an international food theme, perhaps one you haven’t tried before, and enjoy a meal full of that culture’s food. Maybe take some time to learn about the people and place while you are at it.
7. Talk to each other
A radical idea, I realise, and not always easy, but such a worthwhile habit to start. Put those screens and devices away for the mealtime and talk.
If you were looking for ideas on how to start a conversation, ask each person to share their favourite part of the day. We used to do this when our girls were younger as a dinner table conversation starter. It was a good way to learn some conversation skills (eg one person speaks while everyone else listens), and we really liked the focus on the positive for at least that part of the day. Easier to have a glass half full approach while our glasses were half full on the table! Actually, I was secretly pretty chuffed when one of our teenagers asked us recently if we could start doing the favourite part of the day thing again. It’s been a nice opportunity to hear something positive from each person at least once in the day.
If you need a few more tips for functional dinner table conversations, I thought this podcast from Michael Hyatt on 6 strategies to be a better conversationalist had some helpful and thought provoking ideas.
Find even more ideas in this post here, especially for engaging kids and teens in conversation.
Let’s make meals fun!
With all this talk about dinner together, I’m not saying every meal needs to be with everybody else. There can be something quite pleasant about eating what you like, when and where you choose, and savouring the flavour all to yourself.
But harnessing the social value of eating together is also worth the effort when we can do it. That might mean eating dinner together in front of a movie on a Saturday night, sharing lunchtime with work colleagues instead of dinner at home, or catching up for coffee with a friend or family member. Either way, I hope you’ve been inspired to think about simple ways to bring some cheerfulness to your table. Let’s make our meals fun!
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Little Red Hen’s Table watercolour painting by our Cherry Blossom #2
Table talk scene by our Cherry Blossom #1