The last third of my day is anything but relaxing.
Just like I'm in the third trimester of pregnancy, I hobble around the house and ask others to pick up things that I drop on the floor (usually my keys) and then gobble up Reese's Sticks and pepperoni slices. From 5 o'clock on, my life feels a lot like heartburn — simmering underneath the surface with discomfort ready to pop. And when I worked a regular 9-to-5 job, I could dive into my car and speed home for dinner. But as a stay-at-home mom, I simmer away, sometimes hoping to clock out of my home responsibilities too.
But that doesn't happen.
Why? Enter hungry bodies that demand sustenance or else. So I throw shredded carrots onto bagged lettuce, slice apples and heat tortillas and last night's leftovers. Done. But now my tired brain is nowhere near ready to cook up conversation and connect with those I love most.
Enter dinnertime activities.
These activities may not be for all. And they involve some preparation. But the benefits for my family have been magnificent — and include my daughter staying at the table, pauses between bites and happy conversation at my grumpiest time of day. Huzzah! However, I must warn you the side effects may include giggles, snorting and an occasional laughter spray. (Keep napkins handy.) Here are three ways to add bite to your dinner — without the Tabasco.
Preparation: One die and a 3-by-5-inch reference card.
This dice game requires no allowance advance, but is as fun as payday.
To get started, you will need a die. This can be a traditional die a die with a colored dot on each side (found at teacher supply stores).
Create a reference chart on a 3-by-5-inch card. The reference card will correspond to each side of the die. For a traditional die, you will list numbers one through six on the card. (For young children, you may want to reference the number with dots, just like on the die, so they can “match” it themselves.)
After each number on the 3-by-5-inch card, write down an activity. My daughter is 4 and our chart has things such as: sing a song, recite a poem, do a fingerplay, make an animal sound, throw a fetch toy to our dog (don't ask) and give a compliment to the person on your right. But if your kids are older, you could have things such as: what was the nicest thing someone did for you today (or you did for someone else), what was the best song you heard on your iPod today, what's the weirdest thing you saw or "what does the fox say?"
Secret ingredient: Create the die reference chart together as a family so your kids will be more likely to enjoy this new fandangled way you're rolling with dinner. Once the game is ready, everyone takes a turn. For those who like variety, spice things up by making several different reference cards for different days.
Family dinner questions with bingo
Preparation: Bingo cards, daubers/markers and dinner conversation starters.
Want to mix a cup of excitement and fun (as well as listening skills) into dinner? Try this.
The Internet is a fabulous thing. All you have to do is type "free bingo game" in your search engine and you can make and print your own bingo cards for this activity.
Create bingo cards online using words that would likely come up during your dinnertime conversations. For example, I can guarantee that at our house the word "princess" will come up. Other words we include (one word for each bingo square): days of the week, emotions (happy, silly, mad), family member names, pets' names, colors, types of clothing (shoes, shirt, pants).
Next, do another Internet search for "dinner conversation starters." Print these open-ended questions and cut them into strips. These will be questions that each family member will read and answer during dinner. One example of a conversation question is: If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Finally, you'll need markers or “daubers” for the bingo cards. (We use glass stones you can find at the craft store.)
Once everyone is seated for dinner (with a bingo card above each plate), you will begin the game with the first person reading a conversation question. While the first person is talking, the rest of the family looks at their bingo cards for words that were said.
Rotate around the dinner table so everyone has a turn picking a conversation starter and sharing.
Keep playing until you have a winner or it stops being fun.
For more fun, have prizes for those who get a bingo. Prizes could include getting to pick the next family night movie or family dessert or not having to do a certain chore that night.
Pencil-free Mad Libs
Preparation: Nouns written on 3-by-5-inch cards.
Create crazy tall tales to entertain the whole mess hall.
Write one noun per 3-by-5-inch card on one to two packages of cards. Make sure to involve the whole family with picking nouns, the crazier the better. Some of our favorite nouns are not for the weak of stomach: booger, poop and whatchamacallit.
Have cards face down and ready for when dinner starts. During dinner, one person begins to tell a story and picks up a card with a noun that must be included in their part of the story.
The next person then continues the story and also picks another card and uses the noun on the card they picked in their story.
Special ingredient: This game is easier to do with older children. And you may need to set parameters on what types of things will get a director's cut from you. Just be sure to let your kids have a do-over if their part of the story needs an edit.
So why not add some vitamin L (laughter) and vitamin G (goofiness) to your dinner tonight? Just remember, like with any good meal, to stop when you start to feel full. Or stop while things are still good and fun (and kids are not too full of it.) And if these games don't fill the evening with sweetness, try them again another night. Or just do what I did during my third trimester: add chocolate syrup to everyone's milk.
Heather Merrill is a single mom, writer and eyewitness to preschooler debacles. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org