Ways to spice up important family meals

Iowa State University reports that not only do family meals offer children a chance to learn about their family’s values and culture, but that children who eat with their families eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Even better? Teens who eat with their families are less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs, according to the research.

If family dinner is more drudgery than delight these days, shake things up. A special dinner can bring you all closer together. Turn off the TV and the phone, and enjoy your family.

Get Drawing — Cover your table with paper and let everyone draw whatever they like. Adults, too! Share the masterpieces. Perhaps hangman or tictac- toe before dessert?

Picnic — Spread a blanket, grab the paper plates and plastic forks and eat dinner on the floor or in the yard. A flashlight or blanket tent adds to the fun.

Mood Lighting — Dine by candlelight. Pour juice in wine glasses, fold napkins into a fan shape, play some Mozart and pretend you’re at a fancy restaurant.

Kids in the Kitchen — Most kids love to cook. Pick a couple things for kids to prepare. Even toddlers can tear lettuce, sprinkle cheese or pull grapes off the stems.

Let ‘em get messy — Sometimes we spoon feed to avoid a mess. As soon as a child can handle small pieces of food, let them feed themselves. Take pictures! Spread an old plastic tablecloth under the chair for easy cleanup.

My Way Meals — Build-your-own meals are just fun. Set out bowls of various ingredients and let everyone create their own tasty combination. Burritos, tacos, chef salads, baked potatoes and pizzas work well. It is also a great way to get kids to try new foods. Try make-your-own parfaits with fruit, nuts, yogurt and granola.

Game On! — Start a weekly game night. Focus on interacting, not solo games like video games. For very young children, try 'I Spy,' silly songs or clapping games. A great resource for mealtime games is The Family Dinner Project: thefamilydinnerproject. org/fun/dinnergames.

Backwards Night — Have dessert first, and then the main course, and then salad. Backwards clothes and speaking backwards strongly advised. (Maybe breakfast items for dinner and PJs at the supper table?) Read Shel Silverstein’s “Backward Bill” or listen to him read it on YouTube: adweek.com/ galleycat/shel-silverstein -reads-backward-bill -poem/29275.

Make faces — Make a sandwich into a face. Start with a bagel or English muffin and add a spread like peanut butter, hummus or cream cheese. Use banana slices, carrot rounds or raisins for eyes and noses, then add bell pepper strips or apple slices as the mouth. Grate fresh carrots or zucchini for hair. Google 'Cute Kid Meals' for more ideas.

Special Guest — Even little ones think it's a big deal when a friend stops by for lunch.

Read Out Loud — Most kids love stories. They’ll be listening and not fighting. Pick something short and talk about it. Try “100 Books to Read over Breakfast,” at neahealthyfutures .org/wpcproduct/100 -books-to-read-over -breakfast. Or choose a book on tape. Ask your local public librarian for more ideas.

Laura Apfelbeck is the Food Wise County Coordinator for Manitowoc and Sheboygan County, and a SCAN (Sheboygan County Activity & Nutrition) member.