23 ideas to make your family Zoom holiday party actually fun

Games, activities, conversation starters—plus, how to choose the right platform for your fam.

virtual holiday party ideas for families
@ivi_lichi/Twenty20

In this pandemic holiday season, we're missing our friends, family and "framily" (friends who feel like family). We can't get together in person, even for a simple family dinner, with those who matter so much to us. But as the loneliness of social distancing and the anxiety of the crisis set in, getting together can feel more important than ever.

So how can you manage to safely share a meal when you can't be in the same place?

Here is a step-by-step guide to connecting virtually for a family holiday gathering during the pandemic—or any time when you can't get together in person.


Setting the scene for a virtual family holiday gathering

When everyone's sitting in front of their individual screens, it can be hard to figure out how to settle into a rhythm—and even harder to know when to log off. Try choosing a way to start and end your virtual holiday gathering so the beginning and end are clear.

For example, you might start with everyone doing a show-and-tell of their food, or ask "If you wrote a newspaper article about your day, what would the headline be?" To wrap up, you could ask "What are three words you'd use to describe our dinner tonight?" or "What's one thing you're looking forward to the next time we do this together?"

And remember: The typical family dinner is only about 20 minutes long, so you don't have to spend hours online together (unless you really want to). When you set up your virtual dinner, choose a time frame that's ideally 60 minutes or less, and try to keep expectations clear during the event. "Now that we've all had dessert, how about we play one last game and then sign off?"

7 games + activities for virtual family holiday gatherings

Seeing your friends and family members, even on screens, could be fun enough all on its own. But it can also be difficult to communicate and interact quite as freely in the virtual world as you do in real life. Having a game or two ready can provide a way for everyone to jump in and participate in a truly memorable virtual dinner. With the current pandemic and social isolation being so stressful for many, you might want to start by checking in on how people are doing before introducing a game—but on the other hand, a game could be the perfect distraction.

Here are a few game ideas that are especially video-chat-friendly for getting everybody involved:

1. Two truths and a tall tale

This is game is fun as an opener or ice breaker for your gathering. Each person takes a turn telling three "facts" about themselves—but the twist is that one of the "facts" is actually untrue. The others have to guess which statement was a "tall tale."

2. Rose, thorn and bud

Each person takes a turn telling about their "roses" (things that they're grateful for or that make them happy at the moment), "thorns" (something that's a disappointment or a difficult moment from the day), and "buds" (something they're looking forward to or hope to do). If you get the feeling that people are really having trouble finding the bright side due to the pandemic, you might change it to "Cactus Flower" and let everyone name things that are really difficult, along with a few things they're looking forward to when the crisis has passed.

3. Charades

Playing Charades is perfect for online gatherings. To make it easy for players to come up with ideas, you can try using a theme, like "book titles" or "movies." Or you can pass around the link to an online Charades generator, which will suggest ideas for players to act out.

4. Photo caption contests

As long as you're meeting online anyway, get some inspiration from the internet! Take turns sending images that you've found online, and ask each person to submit a funny caption. Vote for your favorites or just enjoy the laughs.

5. Story by sentence

This game is especially good for mixed age groups, since even young children tend to be good at coming up with stories. Have one person begin telling a story. After they've spoken a sentence, another person continues the story with their own sentence. Keep going until someone says "The End." When you're doing this online, it's important to have an order established ahead of time to avoid confusion, so assign each person a number or use another method like going in age order or geographic location (East to West for example, or North to South).

6. Name that tune

As long as your audio connection is a good one, you can play "Name That Tune" online or even over the phone. One person hums a tune without the words, and others have to guess what song they've chosen.

7. Online trivia

Sometimes a good old-fashioned trivia contest is an easy way to pass the time together. If your group likes to play trivia, you can either ask each person to gather any trivia cards they might have on hand, or send links to different trivia sites. The goal would be to try to have each person using a different set of questions, so nobody has the answers right at their fingertips!

15 conversation starters for virtual family holiday parties

In the excitement of gathering for your virtual meal, you probably won't have too much trouble finding things to talk about. However, every dinner party has its moments of silence. And because sustaining a multi-person conversation online can be tricky, with more opportunity for people to talk over one another or monopolize the chat, it's a good idea to have some conversation starters chosen ahead of time. Posing a good conversation starter or two can help everyone to feel invited to contribute and keep the communication flowing.

You can get a fun and thought-provoking selection of conversation starters served up by visiting the conversation page on Family Dinner Project and hitting the "Start the Conversation" button. Each time you click, you'll see a new idea.

Or use one of the tried and true conversation starters below! The questions here work for many different age groups and could be appropriate to ask a newer friend, or your closest family member.

  1. Talk about a time you stood up for someone else. What happened? How did you feel?
  2. What is a trait of someone in your family that you admire?
  3. If you could invite any historical figure, living or dead, to dinner, who would you choose? What would you serve? What would you want to ask them?
  4. Tell a story of a time you learned something unexpected from someone else.
  5. When people talk about you 100 years from now, what do you hope they will say?
  6. What's the most unusual gift you've ever received?
  7. What was (or is) a favorite toy or game from your childhood? What made it special to you?
  8. What's something you've always wanted to learn to do?
  9. If you could make money doing anything in the world, what would you do?
  10. If you were a season, which season would you be and why?
  11. If you could have any animal in the world as a pet, what animal would you choose?
  12. What would your dream vacation be?
  13. What was the happiest day of your life so far?
  14. What's something you did this week that you can be proud of?
  15. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you want to live? Why?

Which platform is best for virtual family holiday gatherings?

Deciding how to connect is at once the most basic and the most complicated part of the evening. We recommend that you designate a host for the evening. That person should invite the guests and make sure that each person is able to connect. There are lots of virtual platforms you could choose. Here's a short list of options that we know have worked for various virtual dinner parties:

1. Facebook or Instagram Chat

Pros:

  • Free
  • Easy to access as long as people are already Facebook or Instagram users

Cons:

  • Not accessible if guests don't have Facebook or Instagram accounts
  • Doesn't work well for groups of more than 5 or 6 people

2. Facetime

Pros:

  • Free
  • Allows about 30 people on chat
  • High quality and fun filters

Cons:

  • Only available to Apple users

3. Google Meet/Google Hangouts

Pros:
  • Free
  • Allows up to 25 people
  • Guests only need a Google account to join
  • Allows guests to join by phone if video is not an option
Cons:
  • Video feature can lag or freeze
  • Works best in Chrome browser

4. Skype

Pros:

  • Free
  • Allows up to 25 people

Cons:

  • Users have to download the Skype app and create an account to access, or use "Meet Now" with app installation if they don't have an account

5. Zoom

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Good video quality and chat feature
  • Allows users to join by phone if video is not an option
  • Allows up to 100 guests and has features like "breakout rooms" that can be used with smaller groups for games or side conversations
  • While free accounts usually only allow up to 40 minutes of connection at a time, Zoom recently announced that there will be no time limit for meetings on free accounts on Thanksgiving Day.

Cons:

  • On days other than Thanksgiving Day 2020, free accounts only allow up to 40 minutes of connection at a time
  • For meetups lasting longer than 40 minutes, you'll need a paid account (starting at around $15 per month)

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A version of this post appeared on Family Dinner Project