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Fun with food: How child care providers can help children build positive relationships with food

As a child care provider, you can help children create positive relationships with food during snacks and mealtimes. Thanks to the Arizona Early Childhood Nutrition team, funded by First Things First, you now have resources to help. This team is a collaboration between First Things First, AZ Health Zone, the Arizona Department of Education, Empower and the Arizona Department of Health Services. Their goal? To tackle food insecurity for families with young children.

Introducing Family-Style Meals

Family-style meals are considered a best practice when eating with children of all ages in child care settings. It’s all about creating a positive, interactive mealtime experience. Here’s how you can incorporate family-style dining into your child care setting:

The basics of a family style meal service includes at least one of the following: 

  1. Children serve themselves: Encourage children to serve themselves, either independently or with a little help from you.
  2. Food on the table: Serve food in containers placed on the table where children are seated.
  3. Join the meal: Sit at the table and eat with the children, modeling good mealtime behavior.
  4. Pass it around: Allow children to pass serving containers to each other.

Best Practices for Family-Style Meals

Following these best practices can make mealtime a rewarding experience for everyone:

  • Create a calm environment: Establish a predictable mealtime routine and schedule. Announce the menu and ensure everyone washes their hands.
  • Encourage teamwork: Using polite phrases, ask the children to help set the table, serve themselves, pass food and clean up.
  • Model good behavior: Sit and talk with the kids, ask engaging questions, and demonstrate good social interactions.
  • Promote independence: Let children choose and serve most or all of their food and follow their hunger and fullness cues.
  • Avoid food bribes: Don’t use food as a punishment or reward. Allow children to leave food on their plates or ask for more if they are still hungry.

Tips for Successful Family-Style Meals

  • Use child-sized utensils and wide-rimmed plates.
  • Serve drinks in open cups when children are ready.
  • Make second servings available, and keep extra napkins and utensils handy.
  • Use serving scoops that match the required portion sizes.
  • Involve children in setting and clearing the table.

These practices not only help children build a positive relationship with food but also teach them important social and self-care skills. By making mealtime a fun, shared experience, you’re helping kids grow up happy, healthy and full of positive experiences with food!

Explore a free online course for implementing family-style meals

Access Empower’s free, online courses to learn how you can support children’s healthy eating and encourage healthy habits for life. Family-Style Meals in Child Care Settings is just one of a series of online courses that can be taken at any time. To access the course, visit the Registry and search “Family-Style Meals” in the name/description field.

Download the family-style meal handout now

Use the family-style meal infographic for training staff, sharing with families and promoting supportive environments for healthy eating.