A note about the author: Heather McNamara is a Child Care Consultant with Region 4 Child Care Resource and Referral.
Eating together, sharing conversation and laughter, is something that adults often do with friends, coworkers, and significant others. However, with the world becoming busier and schedules becoming more hectic every day, it is often challenging to find the time to sit down together and have a meal as a family. Think about the times that you’ve had the opportunity to sit down as a family with your children and talk about everyone’s day. Isn’t it nice to discover what your child learned that day, or hear what they are excited for in the coming days?
Family style meals have so many benefits. They help children develop motor skills through actions such as scooping and pouring. They also help children develop social skills through passing food to their neighbor, and taking turns. Conversations held during family style meal times also help children develop language skills. When children see adults eating new foods, it encourages them to try new foods as well. Adults are great role models for children when everyone sits at the same table and eats the same foods.
How Do Family Style Meals Work?
Often times, people hear about children serving themselves at mealtime and they think “oh, what a mess that would be." Much of the time, people will say that it is just so much easier to put food on a plate for the children and set it in front of them on the table.
Think of it this way. Johnny is a 3-year-old boy. He sits down at the table for mealtime only to find that his child care provider or parent has served him a heaping pile of lima beans. Johnny hates the taste of lima beans and feels overwhelmed by the number of lima beans on his plate. Therefore, Johnny cannot focus on the other items that he does enjoy.
Most people would agree that they would rather choose how much of a food they take at the table. This is often the case for children too. Allowing children the independence to decide how much of each food to take often encourages them to try more new foods. If they know that they can only take a small amount to try, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed by having a new food on their plate.
It will be so messy though, right? Yes, family style meals can be messy, but learning is messy sometimes! Spills happen and teaching children how to clean up a spill helps them to develop a valuable life skill. We’ve all heard the phrase “don’t cry over spilled milk.” Messes can be cleaned up, and children will learn from them. One suggestion is to start by having children serve themselves an “easier” food such as a piece of garlic bread. You can work your way up to serving things like applesauce and pasta. Each step toward independence is valuable to children in your care.
Of course, we want to make sure that we are following proper food safety procedures. Always make sure to maintain food at the proper temperature. Use clean utensils and serving dishes. Also, make sure that all adults and children are washing their hands before and after mealtime.
How to Implement Family Style Meals
Here are some key steps for successfully implementing family style meals within your child care program or home.
Food should be prepared and placed in serving bowls or on plates on the table. Consider bigger bowls with higher sides for younger children.
Be sure to include enough food to allow for the minimum portion size for each child, enough for each child to have seconds, and enough for adults to partake in the meal with the children.
If a child chooses not to take their full portion size, encourage them to take more throughout the meal.
Some children may need more help serving themselves than others. It may be helpful to seat those children near an adult.
Avoid using negative or pressuring statements.
Be sure to allow adequate time for the children to eat so they do not feel rushed.
Make sure that children know they can always have seconds if they would like more of a food they have served themselves.
Here to Help
If you are considering implementing family style meals in your child care program or at home, but uncertain where to start, our team would love to help you! You can connect with Child Care Resource and Referral Staff here.
ISU Extension also has a great resource to share with families in your program, relatives or friends about saying YES to family meals!