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Upgrade the Fun in Your Life: Have a Family Dinner

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I recently learned a lesson about family dinners and fun from my children. I’m a working mother with a seven year old girl, Mira, and a two year old boy, Jamie. Family dinners are important to us, but they’re often frankly chaotic. For example, the other night, we made Salade Niçoise, which is usually a winner with my kids because they’re crazy about salty things like capers and olives. We served it from a pretty dish right on the table, and all sat down to enjoy it at the same time.

But the moment I sat down, Mira asked for milk, not water. Jamie abruptly decided he didn’t want to eat. The kids started fighting over who had more olives. Mira got upset that the purple beans had turned green once they were cooked. Jamie started screaming when Mira tried to eat his salad, even though he wasn’t eating it. Mira dropped a hard-boiled egg on the floor, then decided to get up and rinse it, then decided to do an impromptu creative dance. When Mira then dropped a tomato on the floor, and I heard myself say, “Eat over the plate,” yet one more time, I thought, “Holy cow, are our dinners actually fun for the children?”

A few days later, I asked Mira about this. She looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “Of course our dinners our fun!” This was promising. I then asked her what she found most fun about them. She rolled her eyes and said, “Everything, Mom.”

I really cared about Mira’s perception, not because I think my children’s lives need to be 100% full of entertainment, but because fun plays an important role in “magnetizing” us to things, including profoundly positive things like the family dinner. The problem is, in a world in which we’re all super-busy, we tend to value efficiency more than fun. When it comes to the family dinner, this means that we often emphasize getting dinner on the table quickly, or minimizing chaos, rather than the fun we could have in preparing and eating it.

And make no mistake – marketers are more than ready to step into that gap. They get fun’s magnetic power, but of course try to use it to attract kids to a given product or restaurant chain. In fact, it’s become so common to see “fun” attached to all sorts of things, from fast food, to yoghurt to breakfast cereal to cheese sticks, we don’t even think about it. But what’s truly “fun” about a processed cheese stick? Maybe there’s something novel about the packaging, or it’s momentarily entertaining to peel strands from the cheese, but is it the same quality as homemade fun? And can this kind of “fun” do its job to make our lives sparkle, build strong social ties and make all the little daily tasks of life truly enjoyable? And if not, what are we losing as a result?

I started watching my children more closely to see what they seemed to be enjoying about dinner. Through my observations of them, and by comparing notes with other moms, I’ve seen three things in particular that they children seem to find really fun about family dinners: participation, ritual and togetherness. The wonderful thing is that these are just part of having an inclusive family dinner – I don’t need to do anything special to “make” it fun!

Participation can come in many forms, depending on your children’s likes and their ages. For example, Jamie loves to help me cook. When I start dinner, he demands, “Ladder, please!” and climb up beside me to measure spices, break eggs or put chopped vegetables in bowls. Mira doesn’t like the food prep much, but she loves to forage in the garden for herbs to put in the water jug, and she’s come to take great pride in setting the table. Having them participate frankly slows me down, but the extra ten minutes are usually worth it because they love it and it makes them a part of things.

Outside of the big holidays, our dinner rituals are pretty low-key, but I can tell they’re meaningful to the children because they correct me if I ever forget them! They’re as simple as lighting candles in the winter, “toasting” the end of another busy day at the start of dinner, and waiting until everyone is seated before starting. These are small things, but they mark the dinner as “ours” and make it special and fun for all of us.

And finally, there’s fun in simply being together. During this brief little window, we’re all focusing on two things: dinner and each other. I find it amazing, but they find it fun simply being there, with us, preparing and sharing dinner. When it comes right down to it, fun is a feeling of being fully alive and in the moment, and being together makes us all feel that way.

Family dinners and fun are a perfect marriage, one that “fun” foods can’t compete with. If we foster fun through the family dinner, we’ll magnetize our children – and ourselves – to the kitchen and table, and enjoy the benefits of better health, better connection and more joy.

Lisa Reichenbach is an Oxford-educated anthropologist, writer and consultant. She has worked extensively in healthcare, studying first-hand the ways in which culture and behavior shape health and illness. She is currently writing a book on the relationship between fun, play and well-being, and thinks that family dinners are a great way to enjoy them all! Visit her blog at lisareichenbach.wordpress.com

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. Love this article and so agree. Sometimes the “fun” is just the regular routine and knowing that it’s a time together, which is even more important as kids get older and busy with school and activities. Some days have riotous laugh-a-minute dinners, some days have quick or relatively quiet ones. Still all important, still all good family dinners.

  2. Kelly Lester says:

    What a lovely article!  Sharing with my fans now.

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