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On a recent trip to the supermarket I tossed a package of premade pizza dough into my cart. That impulse buy turned the next Sunday afternoon into a family pizza party. My teenage daughter and 11-year-old son took turns rolling and stretching the dough. My husband shredded the mozzarella, and all of us laughed, talked, and debated which toppings we liked best. Dinner that night was far more fun than usual. Somehow it tasted better, too. Why not get your gang into the act? There are lots of ways to make a routine dinner into a family affair.
Let your kids pick a foreign country and suggest tempting ethnic dishes to make together. Explore Mexican, Chinese, or Italian cuisine for starters. Surprise one another by learning a few words of the language to say at the table. For dessert, scoop up some bing qí lín. (In Mandarin that's "ice cream.")
Hand Over the Chef's Hat
Invite an older child to make dinner. Pick up all the ingredients he needs and offer to assist, or let him enlist a friend as sous chef. Encourage him to develop a signature dish -- scrambled eggs, crepes, and lasagna are all simple for young cooks to pull off.
Try Dunking for Dinner
Serve fondue and you'll literally bring your family together -- everyone will have a blast dipping skewered pieces of meat, vegetables, bread, or fruit into the sauce. Come up with a fun penalty for anyone who accidentally drops the food on her fondue fork into the pot: She has to tell a joke, sing a song, or make up a funky dance move. (Traditionally you have to give someone at the table a kiss!)
Build Your Own
Schedule regular sandwich nights and let family members take turns being the master sandwich architect. Make it a contest to see who can concoct the best new combination -- turkey with mango chutney, perhaps? Get trendy with a fun new appliance like a Panini press. Or put a personal spin on a classic like a Philly cheesesteak.
Go to School
Take a cooking workshop with one of your kids, then practice what you learned -- ravioli-making, for instance -- as you prep dinner together. If you can't afford a class right now, invite Grandma over to demonstrate her specialty.
Rediscover Kitchen Kitsch
Dust off old cookbooks from the '50s, '60s, and other decades gone by. Then gather the kids and introduce them to marshmallow-gelatin molds, beef stroganoff, and pineapple upside-down cake. Dinner prep will be fun and fresh, and you can get into the spirit by turning up the volume on retro artists like Buddy Holly and Dionne Warwick.
Unleash a Secret Ingredient
These days the fruit and veggie aisles of most super markets are stocked with lots of unusual, exotic foods, from papaya to adzuki beans. Let your kids pick out something unfamiliar and figure out how to make it part of your meal.
Cook Like a Celeb
Hijack your kids' interest in celebrities and use it as a fun excuse to cook together. There are thousands of celeb recipes on the Web. Have your children choose a favorite star, then do a Web search of that name plus the word "recipe." You'll turn up everything from a hearty chili (the Obama family) to a tempting peach crisp (Julia Roberts) that will make your kids feel like kitchen rock stars.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2009.