Debra Hasbrook, M.Ed.
In an effort to provide a more home style environment and promote self-help skills the family dining experience is encouraged. But what does that mean exactly, and for what ages?
Clearly infants and one year old children may have a difficult time serving themselves. But for the two year old to eleven year old child self-serving is totally doable. Many teachers simply find it easier to prepare plates and set them in front of the children. I would like to encourage you to give family dining a chance.
The first task in family dining is to provide child sized serving equipment: serving bowls, pitchers, dishes, cups and utensils. These items should fit small hands and capabilities. Sometimes it means putting the food that arrives in one container, into a manageable container to serve.
The second task is to design a process that works. Many classes make all the children come to the table at one time; which is never really the case as there are children who come right away and have to wait. Then there are the stragglers. One way to head off behavior problems based on waiting too long and low blood sugar is to allow children to serve themselves as they arrive at the table. You will have to weigh your adult expectations of waiting until everyone arrives, against what is developmentally appropriate, what will meet the needs of the children and a positive dining experience for you and them.
The third task is an understanding of how much and which foods to put on the plate. The rule is that you must provide and offer a certain amount and type of nutritional food. We must ask children if they would like something at least three times.
There are no rules as to whether the child eats it, it must simply be offered. In family style (with your guidance) children are allowed to choose from the foods provided. If milk and other foods are provided in a small pitcher or container children can serve themselves as needed (with guidance). It is not necessary to fill the cup or plate with a specific amount. If children are allowed to put a smaller amount in their cup or food on their plate, they can refill it as needed. By doing this you respect the child’s appetite, food preferences and you will have fewer spills and less wasted food.
No child will go hungry if offered food throughout the day. Forcing children to eat is about power and control. Encouraging children to try new food is great, but not if it includes eat this then you can have that. This confuses and disrupts natural eating patterns, which is evidenced in the rise of childhood obesity.
Be a respectful and responsive caregiver and try Family Dining.
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