Mealtimes are opportunities to promote toddlers’ and preschoolers’ physical, social-emotional, cognitive, and language development. During meals, children make decisions and share. They also learn good manners, responsibilities, how to communicate with others, and how food nourishes their bodies. Their participation during mealtimes, whether they are eating or setting the table, helps develop their eye-hand coordination, muscle control, and overall independence. Family-style dining reinforces these skills in children.
When children dine family style, they eat in their classroom, enjoy all the same foods, and participate in conversation. Children serve themselves (if able) and decide their portions, which makes them more likely to try new foods. Teachers sit at the table with the children, and parents are invited to join.
Plan food-related activities around these meals to increase children’s knowledge of food and nutrition and establish sound, long-term, and positive food habits and attitudes. For example, you and the children can create a market in the classroom and shop and prepare food together. Help them set the table and make place mats or centerpieces. Children can also learn from other activities, like age-appropriate field trips, tasting parties, preparing their own food, planting and growing food, reading aloud books about food, dramatic play, scrapbooks, and feeding classroom pets. Children can also work with the classroom teacher to help plan menus to share with parents. Use food related activities to teach language arts, color, texture, math, science, social skills, and hygiene.
Support children’s fine-motor skill development by teaching them to open food containers. Allow older toddlers and preschoolers to open their lunch bags or lunch boxes on their own and remove the contents, if applicable. Provide water and milk in small pitchers and cups so that older children can serve themselves.
Keep snacks available to children throughout the day. These snacks should contribute to the children’s total daily nutritional needs according to USDA guidelines. Choose snack foods that contribute not only to the children’s nutrient needs but also to good dental health.
Display dated menus in the families’ home language in the classroom. Identify specific food items, for example, specify “grape juice” rather than “fruit juice”.
Research shows that children who participate in preparing their own foods are more motivated to eat them than are children who do not help with preparation. To help older toddlers and preschoolers prepare their own snacks, provide recipe cards with pictorial instructions. Children can also consult a posted picture menu and sign a snack sheet to record that they have had a snack.
Tips for a Successful Lunch and Snack Time Experience
Plan to seat four to six children and one adult at each table if possible.
Leave tables in the learning centers instead of moving them to a central location.
Wash, rinse, and sanitize all tables properly before and after eating.
Encourage all adults who join a table group, whether staff, parents, or director, to model appropriate manners, promote self-help skills, and engage children in conversation.
Assign children responsibilities for setting the table, bringing food to the table, and cleaning the table.
Serve food in child-sized bowls and platters with child-sized serving utensils. For programs on the USDA food program, have serving utensils labeled with the appropriate serving amount.
Serve drinks, including milk, from small pitchers, not cartons, so children can serve themselves.
Avoid serving salt and sugar.
Seat all of the children before allowing anyone to begin eating. Table groups, however, need only wait for everyone at their table to be seated.
Invite children to begin passing the food clockwise.
Encourage children to serve themselves only as much as they can eat, unless you are on the USDA food program, then appropriate proportions must be served. Do not force a child to finish their food.
Ask children who do not want to eat a certain food to take one bite to try. Do not push them to eat more.
Maintain a leisurely dining pace so children do not feel hurried.
Encourage conversation about the foods served, the days events, or other topics of interest to the children.
Have children clean up their own spills.
Allow children to leave the table when finished. They can clear their dishes, wash their hands, brush their teeth, and get ready for nap time. Allow slower eaters to take their time.
Ask the children to help clean up and wipe down the tables using a wet cloth and soapy water. Children should not use bleach solution or other cleaning and disinfecting products.