Part 4: Transitioning to Family Style Meals

The following three steps can help you get started serving family style meals in your home or center:

  1. Educate and involve
  2. Plan and organize
  3. Use appropriate tools and equipment

1. Educate and Involve

Children may have never experienced a meal served family style. Take time to introduce children to some basic skills that will make the transition to family style meals a success:

  • Model how to pass bowls. Show children how to use two hands while holding a bowl on the outside so that their fingers do not touch the food.
  • Model how to pour and scoop using appropriate utensils. Children love to serve themselves. Even the very young can succeed with some guidance and encouragement.
  • Model how to use table manners, such as waiting for turns, sharing, saying “please” and “thank you,” and politely turning down foods.

Mealtime involves learning as well as eating. Teach children what is expected. Practice ahead of time with empty bowls or bowls filled with dry foods. Remember that learning any new skill takes time, so be prepared to repeat the instructions.

2. Plan and Organize

Plan enough time for children to eat meals and snacks. All food and beverages should be ready and on the table prior to the start of the meal. Planning and organizing is important because:

  • It allows for a more relaxed and uninterrupted meal where children and child care providers can enjoy mealtimes together.
  • Children feel more secure knowing they can choose what to eat and how much to eat because food stays on the table for the entire mealtime.
  • Children know that if they initially turn down a food, they can change their minds during the meal.

One way to assure that there is enough food is to have at least the minimum portion size of all foods on the table at the start of the meal. See the CACFP meal pattern for older children.

Be prepared for spills and accidents:

  • Have paper towels and pails of soapy water available to make cleaning up quick, easy, and fun for children.
  • Soak up spills or dry the floor to prevent slipping. That is all you need to continue a relaxed and pleasant meal.  A full clean up can be done by adults when the meal is over.
  • Eliminate criticisms and reprimands for spills.

3. Use Appropriate Tools and Equipment

table setting

Pass food around the table, allowing children to serve themselves. To do this successfully, you should use developmentally appropriate tools and equipment such as:

  • Small, easy-to-handle serving bowls
  • Serving bowls made of material that does not become too hot
  • Utensils for serving all food (Small scoops, tongs, and spoons may work best. One-quarter and one-half cup measuring cups with handles are the ideal size and also help control portions.)
  • Small covered pitchers with handles and pouring spouts for serving beverages
  • Non-disposable plates and utensils (Disposable materials, such as foam, can break apart and create a choking hazard for small children. However, if you must use disposable materials, make sure they are sturdy and the right size for children.)

View the Eating Environment Checklist. Read the additional suggestions on utensils, equipment, and eating environment. Compare the mealtime environment in your center or home to the guidelines provided on the checklist.