How to Take Family Movie Night up a Notch

family movie night family movie night

I grew up in a family that worshipped movies. Even my birthplace was determined by a movie — my folks chose to move to my hometown of Nashville after being inspired by Robert Altman’s Nashville. There was always the countdown to the weekend, when we’d all go to Blockbuster (R.I.P.) and rent a stack of videos. Movies shaped my family’s conversations and brought us together.

Now I have my own kids (three under 5) and have started our own Family Movie Night. Our events aren’t Pinterest-worthy by any means, but there are some basic tips I’ve learned — by trial and error — that make the event fun for kids and grownups.

1) Take the night out of Movie Night.

Unless your kids are older, movie night should actually be in the afternoon so it doesn’t butt against bedtime. In our house we usually watch movies on Saturdays. Sticking to the same day of the week establishes a ritual and gives the kids something to look forward to. Sometimes we even get wild and spread movies out over the course of two days. So our kids often ask, “Is this a 1-day movie or a 2-day movie?”

2) Let the kids lead traditions.

Help your kids get into it by giving them “jobs.” We all know how much kids love jobs, right? In our house the Pillow Captains get to arrange a pillow pallet on the floor using cushions they find around the house. My kids also get to invite their favorite stuffed animals. I have a friend whose children make hand drawn invitations for their movie nights. What a sweet forethought. You could also give out Bingo cards with various quotes and objects for the kids to spot during the movie, scavenger hunt-style. Or create a fun rating system for them to use once the movie is done.

BTW my kids are still young enough that wearing pajamas when it’s not bedtime is a novelty. Your mileage may vary.

3) Embrace the nosh.

If you want to be clever and you have the time and brain-space, go ahead and match the food to your movie’s theme. Serve your favorite ratatouille recipe alongside Ratatouille! How about a Polynesian pineapple pork to accompany Moana? It’s not that my kids wouldn’t care about this level of exquisite detail, they just wouldn’t notice. My kids always have their eyes on the prize: the TV. So I keep things as simple as possible when it comes to movie snacks. We try different popcorn flavors and dole out the candy.

If you’re doing a dinner/movie combo, make it a floor picnic full stop. There’s no eating on the couch because there will definitely be a spill. I repeat: there will be spillage on the couch. So pizza on the ground is your best bet. I’d spread hay out on our living room floor if I had access to it.

4) Rock the vote.

You do not want to be searching for a movie at the last minute, blindly scrolling through Netflix while the kids dangle off your body and point at whatever flashy character catches their attention. In our family, the kids get to vote in advance between three movies, always with at least one classic thrown into the mix. (We’re still working on their concept of time, so for our kids, anything that came out before they were born counts as a classic.)

And… try to lower your expectations when it comes to movie choice. Your kids may never get excited about the movies you cherished as kids or the ones you think they’ll like. The first movie my mom introduced me to was Lili, a 1953 musical starring Leslie Caron as a naïve French girl who has an emotional relationship with a trio of puppets. I savored every minute. Recently, I showed my kids a clip of it and they closed the tab after 30 seconds. But they love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which came out in 1971. Hopefully, you’ll find your middle ground. For example, Paddington is a legitimately outstanding movie that I’ll gladly watch any day of the week. And there’s always Pixar.

5) Pre-screen (or at least do your homework).

The main objective with movie night is not the boundless cuddles, though those are of course heavenly. The main objective is to avoid nightmares, people. Aside from messing up your kid’s psyche, nightmares introduce a whole other problem: when they don’t sleep, you don’t sleep. So try to make time to pre-screen these movies. Use Common Sense Media as a guide if you don’t have time to pre-screen.

You might find that you have different standards than the MPAA. We were 20 minutes into watching Pinocchio with our kids when we realized oh, wow, this movie is dark. Like, really dark. The kids are filing all this info into their spongy little brains so we gotta do our homework.

6) Watch with them! And actually watch.

Obviously, the last thing you want to do at the end of a long week is watch Captain Underpants. Again. But experts are now saying screen time can be beneficial if you are engaging with your kids. So, even though movie night seems like the perfect opportunity for you to bolt through the house and tear through your to-do list, don’t just put on the movie and leave the room. And don’t sit there on your phone like a lump — that doesn’t count either. Pretend you’re in English class and search for the moral in each movie ‘cause they all have them loud and clear. Lucky for us, pretty much all children’s movie themes are a variant on bravery, team work, and honesty. What’s not to like?

The #1 goal here is to avoid parking your kid in front of YouTube unattended, where an innocent Toy Story flick is one click away from a video of an equestrian influencer filming a racist rant from his garage.

The bottom line…

There are things I’ve done that I’ve never dreamed I’d do before becoming a mom: identifying construction trucks, jumping into superhero mythology, and making a killer slime mix, to name a few. In that spirit, kid’s movies may or may not be your cup of tea. I get it. But it’s even lamer to sit on the sidelines. I certainly don’t care about any of these Disney characters, but I do idolize my kids, who think it’s the coolest stuff ever. And when we get on board with our kids and their interests, they are happy.

And if you require extra motivation: eventually the kids will be asleep and it will be your turn for screen time –  and that chance to finish season 2 of Barry.

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Toby Lowenfels is a writer and mom of three in Nashville. Follow her daily musings at @tobyfels.