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Video Chat Activities To Make It Fun For The Whole Family

These shared activities keep conversation flowing between generations separated by screens.

Like most of the world, my mom is currently in self-isolation. She’s at home alone, as my father passed away almost two years ago. She’s always been an expert at filling her days with activities, people and appointments, but for now her whole world has abruptly paused.

We started talking several times a day, usually by video chat, when the quarantine began. I’m at home too, working and caring for my 16-month-old daughter while my husband, a physician, is working long hours at a hospital. It was important to my mother and I to stay connected, to help mitigate our feelings of anxiety.

Adapting to a new reality has been challenging for Mom, but I quickly realized that one way I could be there for her was by helping her to fill her days indoors with activities that gave her purpose.

As a former magazine food editor and someone who loves making meals from scratch, I’ve been wanting to teach my mother how to cook for more than a decade. Fond of food but not of cooking, my mother has never had much patience for the craft. She lives in Paris, mind you, where I grew up before moving to Toronto, and has never needed to cook much, having easy access to the best neighbourhood bistros and speciality food shops.

So, I suggested teaching her how to cook so she could make the kind of dishes she loves to eat at home. I could share my knowledge about cooking techniques and flavour combos to give her more confidence in the kitchen and make her want to discover new things.

Jennifer's mother, Michèle, learning to make a banana yogurt loaf at home, in Paris, instructed via video chat by her daughter in Toronto.
Photo: Jennifer Bartoli
Jennifer's mother, Michèle, learning to make a banana yogurt loaf at home, in Paris, instructed via video chat by her daughter in Toronto.

“Challenge accepted!” she told me, after I completed an online grocery order and had it delivered to her door. It helps that I know the kind of food she likes to eat and what equipment she has in her Parisian kitchen: I ordered fresh greens, cheeses, citrus, pastas, garlic, herbs and eggs, as well as staples I knew would last a long time in her pantry.

In the days that followed the groceries drop-off, I would walk her through her daily meals by creating easy, quick-ish recipes that she could make for herself, by herself. I’d create recipes using the ingredients I knew she had on hand. I’d then text these recipes to her, writing them in casual terms I knew she’d understand and be able to execute.

This has been a true silver lining of the abnormal world we are currently living in: I’ve been able to teach my mom something I think she’ll keep on enjoying post-pandemic.

This reverse passing down of knowledge has become a positive way to connect with my mom on a daily basis and not think about anything else but the joy of food. It also allows her to interact better with her granddaughter, who loves to get hands-on with a whisk, but isn’t yet the most sophisticated conversationalist.

So far, we’ve made braised red cabbage with apples, a beet and goat cheese salad with pumpkin seeds, a chicken, lentil and pasta soup, mini tomato and goat cheese frittatas, lemony ravioli with wilted spinach, and banana yogurt loaf.

Look: The dishes Jennifer Bartoli has taught her mom to make over video chat. Story continues below.

Quarantine Cooking

With the six-hour time difference, I now wake up to a text from my mom with an in-process photo of the dish she’s preparing for the day, and oftentimes a couple of questions too.

“How do I know if these beets are cooked through ... how do you test them?”

“You said I could freeze these frittatas for later, but what’s the best way to store them in the freezer?”

I’ve been writing recipes for a living for years, but the ones I’m creating for my mom are by far my favourite ones. They have allowed me to feel like I can take care of my mother from an ocean and some away.

When IRL isn’t possible

At a moment when all of our social routines have been abruptly halted, many of us have had to switch to connecting with family by video chat, whether our loved ones live as far away as Europe or just on the other side of town.

But it’s not always easy to find conversation topics for frequent check-ins, particularly since we’re all cooped up inside, and there’s not always much to report.

Added to that, kids, especially younger ones, sometimes struggle to chat through screens. They’re prone to doing things like walking out the room or even hanging up abruptly, much to grown-ups’ bewilderment.

Instead of stressing out about how to give kids a crash course in the art of virtual conversation, it’s worth finding shared virtual activities that make communication flow naturally. Here are a few creative ways to keep multi-generational families connected.

Watch: Which video chat app is right for you? Story continues below.

Cook together (but apart)

If you’d like to take on a similar project to ours, choose dishes you have made before, so you can explain the steps clearly and easily over video chat. Opt for recipes with a limited number of ingredients and instructions and that don’t require too much (or specialized) cooking equipment.

And of course, make sure you choose dishes that you know the other person will love and be interested in making. You could have the required ingredients delivered to your relative’s door, but if you aren’t doing the grocery shopping, at least make sure you know what ingredients your loved one has to hand, so you can make easy substitutes, if need be.

Share a bedtime story

Create a routine around bedtime storytelling, if you have younger children at home. Video chat with their grandparents at a set hour every night and have the grandparents read a bedtime story (or flip the roles) so that the cherished before-bed moment can be shared.

Take it one step further and have kids co-create a story with their grandparents: every day, each party comes up with a few sentences or a whole chapter of a story together.

Play a game

Short of actually being able to take out your Monopoly or Risk board game and play together, pick a time with relatives and dedicate it to playing a game. Some games might be tricky to play over video (card games for example might logistically not function), but other ones, like charades or chess, can be pretty easily played via video.

Many classic board games can be played online too. You can play your turn on an iPad or phone, and chat on a video call Give the app Psych! Outwit Your Friends a try, for example: it’s perfect for playing over Zoom and will turn an otherwise short phone call into a family “outing.”

Make music

Use video time as a moment to make music together like the child and his grandpa, who enjoy a Queen jam session in the video below. Music has a special power to calm and unite. Have different family members play an instrument, and add a few dance moves if you can too. Most of us could use a little whimsy― and a little harmony ― right now.

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