The One Game I Actually Enjoy Playing With My Kids

Maybe Alex, the winner of MasterChef Junior, serves as inspiration. (Photo: Fox)
Maybe Alex, the winner of MasterChef Junior, serves as inspiration. (Photo: Fox)

First, a confession: I don’t really like playing Chutes and Ladders or Connect 4 or Uno with my children. There are a number of reasons but it mostly comes down to the fact that my older two are only 6 and 4 and don’t always get along or understand the rules, which translates to fighting and whining. Also, I’m not that good at sitting still and those games are endless. Whenever we’re in the playroom, I “play clean” — while the kids are doing puzzles or racing cars, I’ll dump a bucket of toys and sort through them making sure the soldiers are with the soldiers and the Legos and with the Legos. In other words, I’m a multitasker who pretty much always needs to be accomplishing something. Because with three kids in the house and a job and a packed life, there’s always something to be accomplished. That’s my issue and I’m working through it. In the meantime, there’s one game

I genuinely love playing with my crew: "Restaurant."

The kids have a play kitchen with all sorts of life-like food and tools and gadgets, but we play “restaurant” in the actual kitchen with real food you can taste and eggs that actually crack when you drop them (which does happen from time to time). I'm the executive chef and the kids are the sous chefs (and waiters and runners and bus boys — score!). We pick characters and name the restaurant — we’ve run a pancake joint, a sandwich shop, a romantic bistro, a patio cafe, you get the picture —and at the end of the game, we have a meal on the table. Pretty good game, right? It’s certainly not ideal for every meal. They often ask to help cook but there isn’t always time and I don’t always have the energy and patience, but we do work together in the kitchen a lot. Friday night we made an elaborate dinner for my in-laws that the kids played a major role in creating — and were so proud to serve.

Because we cook together so often, they already have set roles. Nora, my 4-year-old, knows how to clean mushrooms like nobody’s business. She can also wash veggies and crack an egg without getting shell in the bowl, and is the go-to salt and pepper girl. We let Alex, the 6-year-old, use a knife (usually a butter knife, though he knows how to be careful if we go a little sharper) and he can make a tomato, mozzarella, basil salad completely on his own from start to finish. We all get really into it, rarely breaking character. Which helps with getting them to do things they sometimes grumble about. On Friday night my daughter (who was calling herself “Liz”) emptied the silverware from the dishwasher while my son (“Albert”) took out the garbage, replenished the paper towel roll, and scrubbed the patio table. They both took many trips outside to assist my husband (“the grill guy”).

Part of the reason I love this game so much is that it reminds me of being little and playing “cooking show” with my Grandma Ruth. She was Mrs. Peach and I was her assistant (named Charlotte) and we always made the most delicious soups and had the best time. But in addition to being fun, cooking with kids is educational and productive. It’s good for their imagination. Their hand-eye coordination. Their team-building skills. We even throw some math and reading in there. I’ll ask my 4-year-old how many people we have and she’ll count them up and then take out the corresponding amount of forks and napkins. My son reads the recipes if we’re following one and, if we’re going really fancy, makes paper menus. They also learn about good food and simple cooking techniques and how to season a dish and set a table. Call me old-fashioned but these are skills I want my kids to have and it’s never too young to start. Bonus: They are way more inclined to eat the food if they help prepare it.

At one point the other night Nora had to go to the bathroom and asked me if I would please wipe her. “Chefs usually don’t wipe people but families do so I guess it’s OK that you’re wiping me right, chef? …” It was adorable and my heart almost burst from happiness. I know I’m a little selfish about the board games but I have always loved playing make believe and to play it now with my own little ones is truly a joy. I know they love it too. As a food-obsessed multitasker who has a tough time sitting still, “Restaurant” is the perfect game for our family. It sure beats breaking up fights over who landed on Gumdrop Pass first!