The plastic ones I find always seem boring and outdated so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Using Picasa, I made a collage for each member of my family. I selected a bunch of different photos of each of the children...great vacation memories, baby pics, funny faces, etc...created a collage, and then using the Text feature, wrote their names on them. The kids love these place mats! Each photo seems to bring up a topic of conversation at the dinner table. "Remember when Dad made us hike up that mountain?" or "We had so much fun at that reunion!"
You have heard me talk about using the collage feature of Picasa before...it is the same method I use for making my blog headers and my scrapbook pages. It is so fun, easy and best of all free. For a tutorial on how to make a collage you can go here, or here for a step-by-step easy video tutorial from Persnickety Prints. You can also use a different program (i.e.Photoshop), OR just use a single picture if you don't want to bother with fancy digital stuff. If you want to make it even easier, you could pick up a few 11 x 17 size papers, and have your children make their own drawings.
I called my local printer and decided to go with an 11 x 17 size. That seemed to be a good size for a place mat, and it was easy and cheap for them to make color copies and laminate those color copies because it is a standard size. The color copies were $1 each, and then to laminate each of them was $3. $4 for custom place mats! Not bad! They also told me I could just email the collages to them, which made the whole process extra easy.
I did this about 5 years ago (using just a single picture that I brought in to be photocopied, before I was familiar with photo editing software) and the place mats held up for a good 3 years. They are easy to wipe off with soap and water. The copy place told me that they use 5mil laminate which makes them durable and sturdy.
Here are some tips and ideas:
1. I made a collage using the automatic "Mosaic" feature...that throws all your selected photos together into a collage automatically. (I chose plain white for my collage background.) Once that collage was created, (after you hit the Create Collage button) I selected that collage, and also selected a scrapbook paper, pressed Collage again, and using the Picture Pile feature, centered the finished collage on the scrapbook paper. That is how I got the scrapbook paper edge around the collage.
2. Sometimes the copier will cut off a small bit around the edges...ask!!! The copy lady told me I would lose about 1/4"...it didn't matter because I had the scrapbook paper behind my collage, but without it, it might have. Keep that in mind.
3. Remember in Picasa you can select your own custom collage size. You just type in your dimensions. (Horizontal size first.) Again, I used 17 x 11 because it was cheap and easy.
5. And of course, the possibilities are endless. Wouldn't it be cute to type in manner reminders? Or the family dinner blessing? You could make seasonal place mats also, with fun summer or fall colors, or a holiday theme.