by Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD and Liz Weiss, MS, RD
aka The Meal Makeover Moms
It’s hard to believe we’re back to the daily routine of stuffing backpacks, assembling school lunches, and checking nightly homework but that’s the new reality for us and for families everywhere. With school back in full swing and the shift back to regular routines, we thought now would be a great time to focus our attention on a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts: family dinners.
Don’t you just love this photo? It was taken by Kristen, a mom of two from Danville, GA, when she tested the Silly Salmon Noodle Bake recipe for our cookbook, No Whine with Dinner. Her husband and son seem pretty eager to try “Dinner Tonight!”
Family dinners provide an opportunity for parents to role model good eating habits — if mom and dad gobble up their peas and carrots, the kids are more inclined to follow in their foot steps. And we know from recent research that when children and teens share family meals, they are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight and eat a healthy diet, and less likely to engage in disordered eating practices such as bulimia or extreme dieting. Eating meals as a family also sets the stage for stimulating conversation.
In the real world, however, even if you put a dynamite meal on the dinner table, in some households, finicky eaters may push their food away, active toddlers may prefer playing with toys to sitting still at the table, and busy teens who bounce from activity to activity may grab dinner and eat it on the run. Given those scenarios, we decided to conduct a comprehensive review of mealtime “games” designed to keep families (especially children) engaged at the dinner table… and eating a healthy diet. Read on for a look at our favorite dinner games, conversation starter kits, placemats, and playful utensils.
TABLETOP DISCUSSION GAMES:
The Family Dinner Box of Questions: Cards to Create Great Conversations (Retail price: $19.95)
Appropriate for children ages 6+, you’ll find 82 laminated question cards in this round, playfully illustrated container. With questions like, “Is there a food or dish that you used to hate when you were younger but that you like now?” “What is your favorite family tradition?” and “What have you done this week to protect our environment?” this collection of conversation starters is sure to help any busy family bond and connect at mealtime.
> To learn more, visit MelissaAndDoug.com
Family Table Topics: Questions to Start Great Conversations (Retail price: $25.00)
Connect at family mealtime with this fun mix of kid-friendly questions. 135 laminated question cards come in a cool acrylic cube and range from silly to thought-provoking: “What would be on the menu for your ultimate birthday dinner?” “What family or school rule would you most like to change?” and “Which famous athlete would you love to meet?” Table Topics comes in other editions including Family Gatherings, Gourmet, and Grandparents.
> To learn more, visit TableTopics.com
Doodles at Dinner placemats (Retail price: $10.99)
Created by artist Deborah Zemke, this series of 36 tear-off paper placemats brings out the inner artist in everyone. Designed for ages six and up, each placemat offers step-by-step instructions for creating mini masterpieces such as a puffin, a praying mantis, a woolly mammoth and swans. Once they learn how to doodle all 36 images, family members can move on to Doodles for Breakfast and Doodles for Lunch!
> To learn more, visit BlueAppleBooks.com
PLATES AND UTENSILS:
Play with Your Food (Retail price: $19.99)
Yes, it’s okay to play with your food especially when it motivates toddlers to try new things. The Play with Your Food kit comes with a four-sectioned dinner plate, a spinner, and a matching mug. Depending on the personal “taste” of your youngster, you can pick from three different themes: fairy princess, dinosaur, or transportation. To play the game, each child gets to spin the spinner and then eat from the section of the plate where the spinner lands. It’s hard to say “no” to things like broccoli when the spinner (or fairy princess) says, “try it.”
> To learn more, visit DaydreamToys.com
Constructive Eating (Retail price: $14.95 plate / $19.95 set of three construction utensils)
Children ages two to four (and sometimes younger) will find it hard to resist these “construction” utensils and plate. In general (but certainly not always), the construction theme appeals to boys. So the company also created three garden-themed utensils with a fairy perched on each one as well as a garden-themed plate. The products are intended to help children develop their motor skills while making dinner time fun. Carter Malcolm, the owner of Constructive Eating, shared a personal story that really warmed our hearts, so we’re now sharing it with you: “One of our favorite emails to date was from a mother of a two-year-old. She told us that our utensils had become too popular with her son. In addition to carrying them with him throughout the day, he was also sleeping with them on his pillow. The mother was struggling because she would have to sneak into his room at night, retrieve the utensils, wash them and then replace them before her son woke up the following morning.”
> To learn more, visit ConstructiveEating.com
The Original Dinner Games (Retail price: $15.95)
For families with children ages six to 12, check out Dinner Games, a rectangular-shaped metal box filled with 51 laminated game cards. The cards are color coded by educational skill — silly games, numbers and math, phonics and vocabulary, memory games, and so on. For younger kids ages three to six, consider Beginner Dinner Games, also designed to add fun and lively conversation to family mealtime.
> For more information, visit FamilyDinnerGames.com
Gather ‘Round Dinner Game (Retail price: $24.95)
Young children love pressing buttons especially when there’s a silly noise or blinking lights involved (though that can certainly drive parents a little crazy)! To play, someone at the table pushes the button and the blinking light lands on one of the dinnertime activity prompts. With 132 games to choose from — everything from Eat and drink with your opposite hand for the next minute, Eat some veggies and flex your muscles, and Everybody name as many green foods as possible — it’s ideal for children ages five and up.
> For more information, visit FamilyDinnerGames.com
We always love hearing from our podcast listeners and blog readers, and recently we asked you to tell us why shared meals are important to your family. Here is what you had to say!
Meredith: “Family dinner time for us is utmost important as we feel it’s our time to connect with the boys and share about each others day without interruptions. A tradition that we feel brings us closer together.”
Jody: “I have a very picky eater. And I find when we sit together as a family to eat, she will more often than not eat what we are eating.”
Katie: “Family dinners are the one time in the whole day where we are able to sit down together and talk without the outside distractions of the world. It’s our connection time and therefore very important.”
Christa: “I would say we have family dinner pretty much every night. I’m a stay-at-home mom of three and my oldest is only five and not involved in too many activities yet. The TV goes off, and we all have our regular spots to sit. We start out with a prayer and we just eat and talk. My husband works late a few nights a week, but at least I get to sit with them each night.”
Beth: “I grew up in a family of six and we always sat at the dining room table for dinner. Mom was often too tired to eat much, but still it was a time to share before everyone dispersed for homework, etc. Today my own family of three has a sit-down dinner in the kitchen at least five nights a week. Sometimes it is a rush given school, work, and sports, etc, but I still think it is worth the effort both for the nutrition and the time to interact and connect.”
Disclosure: After previewing all of the above products online, we requested and received sample products for review.
Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD and Liz Weiss, MS, RD are The Meal Makeover Moms, and together, they’re on a mission to help busy families eat a healthy and delicious diet. Their latest cookbook, No Whine with Dinner (M3 Press, 2011) features 150 healthy, kid-tested, mom-approved recipes and 50 amazing secrets for getting picky eaters to try new foods … especially vegetables. For credible nutrition advice and easy, affordable family recipes, visit their award-winning blog, Meal Makeover Moms’ Kitchen or listen to their weekly radio podcast, Cooking with the Moms.