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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

(05-01-2020) A note: Our centers have paused our family-style dining practices during the national health emergency, but … we got the practice from families like you! At the end, you’ll find an illustration about how to try family-style dining at home to help foster healthy eating, independence, etiquette, and more!

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