Such Good Eaters! How "Family-Style Dining" Teaches Kids About Food (& Life)

little girl helping herself to salad feature image
Photo by She Saw Things Photography

By Carolyn Sweeney Hauck

It’s lunchtime in Stacee Thomas’s toddler room at the Fred Meyer KinderCare Learning Center in Portland, Oregon. The little ones have just come in from recess pink-cheeked, a little tired—and a lot hungry. They wash their hands, head to their kid-size tables, take a seat, and wait patiently for lunch.

What comes next looks nothing like the brown bag lunches of yesteryear. In fact, the entire lunchtime routine looks like mealtime at home: Each table for eight will be set with forks, spoons, plates, and napkins; and food will be served and passed in big bowls, with every child scooping and serving themselves. There’s no “teachers’ table” here. Instead, Thomas will sit with the kids and chat about the day—and what’s on their plates. Called “family-style dining,” this midday ritual is more than just a meal. It’s teaching children about healthy foods, encouraging independence, and learning to be polite (plus a whole lot more).

Today, Thomas has chosen an enthusiastic boy named Owen as her helper. “Owen, can you help me pass out plates and cups to your friends today?” Owen reaches for the seven colorful plates Thomas is handing him as she says, “Give one to each of your friends.”

helper passing out plates
Photo by She Saw Things Photography

Owen’s friends all respond with polite “thank you’s” as he hands out the plates—well, almost all of them. When one girl yells out, “Hey, I don’t have one!” she receives a very gentle reminder from the teacher: “Please, may I have a plate.”

Once Owen takes his seat, Thomas and her room assistant place heaping bowls of whole-wheat pasta Alfredo, cooked carrots, and applesauce in the middle of the table before sitting down themselves. A few need help ladling out the gooey pasta, but the applesauce (which, frankly, looks destined for a spill), gets served and passed by little hands without so much as a drop on the table.

serving themselves
Photo by She Saw Things Photography

Lest you missed the mention that this is a toddler room, here’s a reminder that these children aren’t age five, or even four—they’re two or three. Some are still potty training or in diapers, but here they are setting the table, carefully serving themselves, and politely passing food to their neighbors. They’re small, adorable, and look like a group of friends gathered for a proper lunch date.

eating together
Photo by She Saw Things Photography

“We start family-style dining when they’re little,” says Marjie Randall, the center’s director. “They’re just so capable of a lot more than we even think they are at mealtime.”

Family-style dining is, as it were, a centerpiece of KinderCare’s nutrition and wellness program. It teaches manners, fosters independence and empowerment around food (kids are allowed to choose what goes on their plates), helps them bond with their classmates and teachers, and offers them a cornucopia of foods to try as teachers tell children about what they’re eating and why.

They love it, too. As these two- and three-year olds sit and eat a nutritious, balanced meal together, they enjoy deep yet silly conversation. “I’m using a spoon.” “Animals use their tongue and their mouths to eat.” “I like carrots, but you don’t like carrots.” 

overhead shot of table
Photo by She Saw Things Photography

When lunch is over, everyone is clearing plates and cups, collecting blankies from cubbies, and finding cozy spots to curl up in. The toddlers in Thomas’s classroom have just enjoyed a lovely meal complete with delightful conversation, and now…it’s time for a nap. Jealous? 

girl spooning out peas
Art created by Amy Martin Illustration

Home Guide To Family-Style Dining

We all whip up mac n’ cheese on occasion and call it dinner. (Hey, life is busy.) But most families, no matter their size or level of busy-ness, find an evening here or there to sit down and have a meal together. The next time that happens with your two- or three-year old, try practicing the rituals of family-style dining and watch as she becomes a great dinner companion right before your eyes! Here’s how:

1. Setting the Table.

If you usually set the table yourself to avoid giving your child tiny weapons…

Try this instead: Trust him with a few spoons and ask him to place one at each family member’s spot at the table.

2. Serving Herself.

If you usually rush home from work and keep dinnertime moving along by hurriedly plating food in the kitchen…

Try this instead: Pick an evening you have a bit more time and place the food in bowls in the middle of the table. Have your child serve herself with a large spoon. Start with something easy like a bowl of peas and carrots, and watch her proudly spoon up her own dinner.

3. Passing Food.

If you usually make sure everyone has what they need on their plate by serving each person yourself…

Try this instead:
 After he’s dished up peas and carrots for himself, ask him to pass the serving spoon to the family member next to him. Better yet, if he wants more practice spooning food, hold a plate for him while he proudly serves each family member a heaping pile of veggies.
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