12 Activities for Family Meals

by Erica Layne on April 16, 2014

12 fun and meaningful conversation starters to help you get the most out of family meals!

If you remember from when I shared some easy alternatives to family dinner, my husband and I have mixed feelings about family meals. (And by mixed, I mean my husband wouldn’t mind bagging it for a few more years…)

So when we do sit down at the dinner table, I want our time to count. :)

With his own kids, Bruce Feiler of The Secrets of Happy Families aims for just ten minutes of quality talk per meal, with the kids talking for at least half of it. And the way I see it, if we’re going to go to the effort of serving up dinner and refilling a hundred cups, we might as well pack in some added benefit!

Here are twelve activities to help your children get the most out of family meals:

For a printable version, click here

To Build Sense of Self

  • Autobiography Night. Ask each child to recall an experience, and then follow up with opened-ended (who, what, when, where, why) questions. Boston researchers found that children who were encouraged to reminisce retained memories better than those who weren’t. Memories also translate to self-esteem, which makes me smile even more when my son talks about the cooked carrot we tried to put on a snowman when he was two years old.

  • The Happy Sad Game. Have everyone at the table share one sad and one happy thing that happened to them that day. I love that this gives kids a chance to see their parents and siblings work through hard things. Feiler says this simple exercise helps children develop “empathy and solidarity with those around them.” Beautiful.

  • The Dinner Guest Game. If you could bring one person, past or present, to dinner, who would it be, and why?

To Build Family Identity

  • The “Do You Know Me?” Game. Have the kids ask questions about themselves (What is my favorite food? What do I do at recess?), and then have them answer questions about YOU (What town did I grow up in? What is my favorite book?). I love the idea of showing our children that it takes effort and thoughtfulness to really know another person.

  • Service Suppers. I recently heard one mom say that to combat some characteristics of the current “selfie generation,” she has her teenage children share one thing they did that day to serve someone else. What a great way to encourage children to look outside of themselves as a habit.

  • An Attitude of Gratitude. Ask: What is one thing you are grateful for today? We’ve done this a few times a week since the start of 2014, and I’m often touched by the range of blessings we share in one sitting, from a deep love for grandparents and family legacy to my son’s appreciation for candy. :) If gratitude is a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, I want my children to be bodybuilders!

  • Pain Point. Come to dinner prepared to share one sore point from your life, and allow your children to brainstorm ways to handle it. (Examples: A neighbor complained about how long you go in between mowing the lawn. You scheduled two appointments for the same time. You want to donate to the PTA, but you’re saving to buy a house.) Brainstorming together encourages problem solving skills and family unity.

  • Roots. Share a story from your family’s history. This one may break Feiler’s rule of having the kids do at least half the talking, but it’s worth it. If we want family identity to seep into our children’s souls, storytelling is a powerful way to achieve that. (I know it can be hard to think of stories off the top of your head, so try printing some old family photos to use as a springboard for your stories.)

To Build Verbal & Other Skills

  • Describe Your Day. Have each child describe their day in a few sentences—without using any words that start with a certain letter.

  • Tough Questions. Throw out a topic, and encourage curiosity by having the kids come up with questions about that topic. The toughest question wins. (Topic ideas: photography, basketball, Broadway, air travel, nocturnal animals.)

  • Similar Words. Give the kids two dissimilar words and have them brainstorm what’s similar about them.

  • Human Thesaurus. Toss out a common word (play, quietly, happy) and ask everyone to come up with as many alternatives as possible.

Now moms, I know you can’t do this every time you sit down. On the nights when my ears are ringing from the wild laps the boys ran around the table right before dinner, I’m just happy when the food in their mouths has quieted them down.

You also may not have time at dinner for the whole family to share, but if you keep plugging away, I really believe those dinnertime chats will help your kids come to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves—your family.

You know I’d love to hear what’s happening at your table! Have you done any of these? Do you have any to add?

More Resources:
The Secrets of Happy Families
The Entitlement Trap
The Family Dinner Project

photo credit

Linked up with What I Learned Wednesday, Works for Me WednesdayGrace at Home and All Kinds of Things – Family Fun Activities.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire @ Lemon Jelly Cake April 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Oh my goodness, Erica, I love these ideas! I have SUCH fantastic memories of conversation around the dinner table. The only thing I would add to your list is being silly. I’m not sure how you can really facilitate that, haha, but in our family it just sort of happened. My poor mom would sit there, quietly eating her dinner while my sisters and my father and I grew increasingly noisy and ridiculous. We had plenty of serious conversation too, but those goofy moments are definitely the ones I remember and cherish the most. ;)
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Erica Layne April 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Oh my goodness right back at you, Claire! I was toying with the idea of a followup post about the mood at the table and how to get kids to participate (because my gut thought is that it’s important not to be pushy). Yes, lightheartedness is a must. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty much the answer to any question about getting your kids to participate. If they love hanging out with the family because everyone laughs together, problems solved! Thanks for adding that!

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Haili April 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm

l love that family meal time is important to you. I often find myself not making much conversations, because during the week it’s just me and my three year old and 14 month old. My three year old I often ask him what he did that day, even though I know, but I don’t do much talking with my 14 month old who doesn’t talk.

I have had the conversation with my husband about hoping our children have good self esteem so they are able to stand up for good as they get older. I see that children who have that strong self esteem don’t usually fall to peer pressure and such. They believe in themselves and don’t feel the need to impress other people. I want my children to be well rounded and themselves- so I like these suggestions.

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Erica Layne April 16, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Yeah, my kids are 5, 4, and 1, and we’re just getting our feet with with these. I’m excited to do more as they grow, but when they’re really little (like yours), there’s only so much you can do! Just asking about his day is perfect. :)

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lorie s April 16, 2014 at 7:16 pm

These are some great ideas! I just saw a conversation idea that I thought was clever…2 truths and a fib. Everyone gets to have fun guessing which events are real and which is made up, encourages creativity, gets some events from your child’s day out that might not otherwise.

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Erica Layne April 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Yes! I love the idea of doing that within a family – It seems like it would be harder to think up fibs that your siblings and parents don’t already know or couldn’t guess! Fun challenge, for sure!

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Sarah April 16, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I love this! We really struggle with kids getting too silly at the table. Messes get made, nobody eats, and we all leave in a bad mood while I start counting down the minutes to bedtime! We go through phases where we do good, bad, funny…each person tells something good that happened that day, something bad that happened, and something silly. The kids love this and it helps keep our dinnertime much more under control! I need to put this list on the fridge so we can try some of them out.

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Erica Layne April 16, 2014 at 10:47 pm

That’s awesome, Sarah! I hadn’t thought about dinner activities being a way to keep hyper kids a little more on point. :) I’m thinking of turning this list into a simple printable – perfect for the fridge!

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Cheri April 17, 2014 at 4:41 am

Wonderful, thoughtful ideas!

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Kathryn April 17, 2014 at 5:47 am

Love this!
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Erlene April 29, 2014 at 8:48 pm

My kids are older, but I still think games like these are fun to keep the conversation going at the dinner table. Pinned.
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Alexis @ We Like to Learn as We Go May 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm

These are great ideas! Maybe it will help keep our preschoolers at the dinner table a little longer before they get bored and try to leave. :-)

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Tara Sims July 17, 2014 at 8:02 am

Wonderful post! Thanks so much for sharing!!!! Can’t wait to try some of these!!

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