Making Dinner Fun

I’m not sure how it started but my sons and and their grandmother  have a running joke about eyeballs.  The boys will throw the word “eyeball” into a conversation and Grammy pretends to be totally grossed out (although sometimes it’s not an act!).

Eyeball (un) Appetizers (lesson learned: use a black or red plate if you want your eyeballs to really stand out!)

The boys love this joke so much, I thought it would be fun to really gross Grammy out with some creepy Halloween appetizers.  So here’s your warning:  If the thought of eating an eyeball makes your stomach turn, this is not the post for you.  But if you crave a little  fun with your food, here’s a sure-fire Halloween party hit for your little ghouls and goblins.  Eyeball (un)Appletizers!

My boys thought these were fabulous!  They had a lot of fun making the eyeballs and even more fun serving them.  They chopped the crab with plastic knifes, made the salad, stuffed a few egg while mommy stuffed the rest, and added the sliced olive pupils.  We served the eyeballs on a plate with a lid, so when Grammy lifted the lid she would see two eyes staring back at her.  Success!  Grammy was totally grossed out by these!  She managed to choke down one before she gagged and couldn’t continue, but the  boys (and their Papa) laughed like crazy and ate a lot! I had two and they weren’t bad (although I admit I took the black olive off the second one–very cool looking but not the best taste combination!).

Hope you have fun making and eating your own disgusting Halloween (un)appetizers!

Eyeball (un)Appetizers

8 – 12 hardboiled eggs
4 – 6 ounces crab or chicken salad (see salad suggestions below)
Sliced black olives or raisins

Shell the eggs and slice them in half.  Remove the egg yolks and save them for something else (egg salad is a yummy low oxalate lunch).  Arrange the egg halves on a serving plate.  Spoon 1 – 2 teaspoons of crab salad into the hollow of each egg half.  Top each egg with a slice of black olive.  Enjoy!

Makes 16 – 24 appetizers.


Salad Suggestions:  I wanted my eyeballs to really be gross with a somewhat realistic texture and a blood-shot appearance.  The easiest way to do this is to use real or imitation crab, separated or cut into chunks.  Add enough mayonnaise to hold it together and maybe a dash of salt and pepper or Old Bay seasoning, and Voila!  You have a crab salad that will make your eyeballs look bloodshot (and really gross!).  Another way to do this is to use shredded or finely chopped chicken or turkey.  Again add a little mayo, pepper, and salt, but this time you might want to add some thin strips of red bell pepper to achieve the blood-shot look.  I used 8 ounces of crab meat to make my salad and had at least a third of it left over after stuffing the eyeballs (which my sons ate as their snack that day without any add-ins).  You can always make a bigger batch of salad than you need.  After stuffing your eggs, add your favorite veggies, fruits, or seasonings and lunch is served!


My boys have a new favorite food–Jamaican Rice and Peas!  This is a staple from my vegetarian days that I haven’t made in years, but I had one of those crazy cravings and gave in.  It also seemed like a good learning opportunity for the boys.  What better way to introduce new cultures than through their food?

Yummy Jamaican Rice and Peas

Aidan loves his rice and peas (here made with kidney beans)

Rice and peas is an everyday staple in Jamaica.  Its subtle coconut flavor and creamy texture are a perfect complement to Jamaican Jerk Chicken and other spicy island treats (try it with salsa chicken and pineapple for an easy, Caribbean-inspired family meal).  It is traditionally made with pigeon peas, but black-eyed peas or kidney beans are often substituted.  I make it with canned peas because it’s so easy, but you can prepare  the raw peas yourself if you can’t find canned pigeon peas and want to make the traditional dish (use one cup raw peas with three cups water).  I sometimes use the  pepper and sometimes don’t.  Since you use a whole pepper and remove it before cooking, it doesn’t make the rice hot, but adds a nice, subtle pepper flavor.

The night I introduced Jamaican Rice and Peas to my boys, I talked with them about Jamaica and tropical islands.  They were fascinated and asked lots of questions and repeated the things I was telling them over and over.  I think it was the first time it had started to make sense to them that people live in many different places, and that people in different places eat different foods than we do.  It was fun watching them learn, and  it was a very pleasant way to make dinner conversation with soon-t0-be-three-year-olds.  I plan to buy a good map to keep in the kitchen, so as we cook and learn together I can point out where the different foods we eat come from.  I hope this will also make cooking and eating together as a family more fun.  It sure was fun last week.  And it was even more fun when Aidan requested “Island rice and beans” again for dinner a few nights later (we ate it as our main meal the second night since I already knew they liked it).

Jamaican Rice and Peas

1 can kidney beans, pigeon peas or black-eyed peas (15 ounces) (see note)
1 can unsweetened coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
1 cup water
2 cups brown rice (or substitute long or short grain white rice–not instant!)
1 habanero pepper (can substitute a Scotch bonnet or chili pepper or omit)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
salt to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon)

Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan, including the liquid from the beans.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender (about 50 minutes for brown rice or 30 minutes for white rice).  Remove the habanero pepper and serve.

Makes 4 main dish or 8 side dish servings.

Note:  Most Jamaican chefs cook raw beans first (which are soupy like non-drained canned beans) which is why I use the canned bean “juice” in my recipe. It keeps things easy and more authentic tasting.  You may like the texture of this dish better, however, if you drain and rinse the beans first, then add an extra 1/2 -3/4 cup water to dish.  (I find that I need more water when I use white rice instead of brown rice.)

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Try leaving out the pepper, thyme, garlic and beans at first, so you just have coconut rice (you will have to add 1/2-3/4 cup water).  If your picky eater likes this, try adding back in the beans first, then add each “spice” one at a time each time you make the dish.  Alternately, make “coconut rice” and let family members add their own beans at the table.  You can also use 2-3 fresh thyme sprigs instead of the dried thyme and remove them before serving.

Menu Planner:  Rice and beans makes a filling vegetarian meal by itself, but it is also really good with spicy meat dishes like jerk chicken.  Try it as a side dish with salsa chicken and pineapple or as a main dish with a tropical fruit salad on the side (mango, banana and pineapple with coconut sprinkles-yum!).

What could be better in the summer than a huge banana split?  A huge banana split with a health make-over—one so healthy it can double as a fruit salad!


I love Banana Splits!

It’s been so hot lately I haven’t felt like cooking.  Three nights ago I pulled out assorted cheeses, lunchmeats, and whole grain rolls.  After a quick sandwich, I set out the cutting boards and the boys and I went to work making dessert.  Because dessert was also part of dinner, I doubled the fruit and went light on the chocolate sauce. My family also uses a reduced sugar, “reasonable” fat ice cream to keep these “dinner worthy.”  An unexpected bonus: this dinner was definitely fun!  My boys and I laughed and talked about dinner and their day at the pool as we ate and “cooked” together.

Yum!  These banana splits were so good we ate them again the next night (and the next . . . but hey, we couldn’t leave Grandma and Papa out of the action, could we? ).

Healthy Banana Splits:

2 small bananas (or 1 large)
4-8 ounces strawberries, sliced
1 cup pineapple tidbits (about half of a 20 ounce can, drained)
4 scoops vanilla ice cream or ice milk (1-2 pints depending on your scoop size)
Chocolate syrup or fudge sauce

If you have a toddler, slice the banana in bite-size pieces.  Otherwise, slice the banana length-wise (“split” the banana), then cut each split piece in half.  Put two pieces of the split banana on either side of a bowl.  Put a scoop of ice cream between the banana pieces then add sliced strawberries and pineapple tidbits to the top.  Drizzle a little bit of chocolate syrup or hot fudge sauce over the top and serve.

Yeild:  Makes 4 banana splits

Get the kids to help: Kids can cut the bananas and strawberries (use a plastic spreading knife, a butter knife or a lettuce knife with young children).  They also enjoy assembling the banana splits and drizzling the chocolate sauce over the top.  You may want to pour a little sauce in a measuring cup and let them drizzle it from there to prevent chocolate floods!

Picky Eater Pleaser:  If your kids don’t like “mixed foods,” put a small pile of each fruit and a scoop of ice cream on a plate (not touching of course) and drizzle each pile with a little sauce.

A few weeks ago I asked Cameron what would make dinner more fun.  He said “decorations,” which I finally figured out meant strings of lights and Christmas ornaments pasted all over the table–indeed a fun idea for July. I’m not going  to go this far, but I do believe I need to work on ways to make dinner more fun or special.  To understand why, you first need a taste of my family’s typical meal conversation.

Dinner Converstaion #1:

You need to get me some milk!

Cameron: MILK!!! (Followed by crying)

Aidan: PINEAPPLE!!! (Followed by crying)

Me: Please ask mommy in a nice way.

Cameron: Milk, please, mommy. (still whining . . .)

Aidan: Pineapple, please, mommy. (still crying . . .)

Me: That’s much better.  Here’s your milk.  Thank you, Mommy.

Cameron: Thank you, Mommy.  (Smiles, then eats last bite of pineapple.)  PINEAPPLE! (starts wailing)

Aidan: PINEAPPLE.  YOU SAID ME NEXT!  (followed by hysterical crying)

Repeat above until Cameron and Aidan are almost full, and Mommy is so frazzled she wants to pull out her hair.

Dinner Conversation #2:

Me (trying to start a civil dinner conversation): What did you like at school today, Aidan?

Aidan: Cameron said “Butt”

Cameron:  (Attempts to make a rude noise with his mouth against his hand.)  TOOT!

Aidan:  TOOT!  (tries to mimic Cameron’s gesture).

Me: We don’t talk that way at the table.

Aidan: (defiantly) But we do. TOOT!

Cameron: TOOT!

Both boys laugh so hard they fall out of their chairs . . .

Believe me, we do have some civilized and interesting dinner conversations at our house, but conversations #1 and #2 make appallingly regular appearances.  The only thing that changes is the bodily function under discussion or the food being demanded.  I eventually resort to punitive measures if this gets out of control, but I’d much rather lead the boys back to more appropriate conversation in a gentle way.  Better yet, I’d like to keep the conversation from deteriorating in the first place.

What I’ve realized lately is that I can do a lot to set a better tone for good, wholesome fun at my table.  My problem is that I put so much energy into fixing meals that I’m often exhausted by the time I finally get to sit down and eat.  I sit and stare at my food, while robotically getting whatever the boys need.  No wonder our dinner conversations have been so horrible.  On top of this, the boys almost inevitably come to the table before I’m ready for them.  They start demanding this and that and falling apart, and before long half the meal is over before I’ve even had a chance to sit down.  I can’t tell you how much I hate this.

So here is my plan to change things.  First, if I’m not ready for them yet, I tell the boys that dinner is not ready and I pop in one of our extra short (10-15 minute) videos for them to watch.  I’m not entirely happy with this solution, but it keeps them occupied long enough for me to get dinner completely on the table before they sit down.  Then I can sit down with them and pass things and anticipate their needs, keeping the entire dining experience a lot more pleasant for everyone.

A much more pleasant dinner!

Second, I believe I need to put as much effort into having a pleasant dinner as having a good, healthy dinner, so I’ve been doing a little research and brainstorming ideas to make dinner festive or special.  Here are some ideas I have already tried or plan to try soon:

1.)  Lighting candles

2.) Using centerpieces such as “found baskets,” “memory baskets,” flowers or veges from the garden, or things the boys have made.

3.) Using decorations (sparingly- I don’t want to spend too much time with this but the boys might get a kick out of making place mats or using fun napkins.)

4.) Playing soft music.

5.) Talking or singing about the culture that inspired our meal (Mexican burritos, Italian spaghetti etc.)

The verdict so far?  Success!  Yesterday, they watched Green Eggs and Ham while I finished getting dinner completely ready.  We washed our hands.  Then we lit a candle and ate dinner by candle light after saying our thank yous.  The boys thought this was really cool and spent the entire meal talking about why we lit a candle and other fire-related themes such as roasting marshmallows over the campfire, birthday candles and fire trucks.  Not the stimulating adult dinner conversation I long for, but not bad.  And the boys want to light candles again tonight.

I imagine this won’t work every time, but I am going to keep up my efforts and I’ll keep you posted.

Do you have any ideas for making dinner more fun or festive?  Please share!