Meal Times with Preschoolers: How to Make it a Positive Experience

As a parent, your schedule is jam-packed with work, child care drop-offs, sports, lessons and play dates. But what about meals as a family? It’s easy to rush through them, but meal times are an important part of child development. We sat down with an expert who works with the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program to learn best practices for making mealtimes a positive experience.

Meal times are more than just feeding your child, they are a chance to learn socialization, healthy eating habits, independence and table manners. As a monitor for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, I often remind teachers they are shaping children’s eating habits for the rest of their life, and parents can often benefit from similar advice.

So what does a positive meal time look like?

To begin with, serve meals family-style, and try to follow consistent times for each meal. Children need predictable patterns. Knowing when to expect breakfast, lunch and snack helps set the stage for their day. A routine of washing their hands, setting the table and knowing what to expect during mealtime will make the meal run more smoothly. When children use child-sized utensils, cups, plates and serving dishes, it sets them up for success when serving themselves. I know it can get messy for children to serve themselves, but think of this as a learning experience. Sometimes learning is messy. Just keep a positive attitude about it.

During mealtime, sit with your children and interact with them. Talk about the food you are eating. Help the children learn to serve themselves. Take the chance to introduce table manners. All of these actions help children learn how to socialize during mealtime. You set the tone for the entire meal. If you are rushed and stressed about the meal, the children will feel the same way. Encourage healthy eating habits and manners by modeling them for your children.

Quick tips to start making mealtimes a more positive experience

Have your children help

Assign the children jobs, such as cleaning and setting the table. This allows them to feel more engaged in mealtime, and it will be less work for you.

Serve children appealing foods

Think about the texture, color and temperature of the foods. Try to offer a variety of colors to make the meal more interesting. Serve familiar foods along with something new.

Let children lead

Remember – you set the mealtime scene and offer healthy foods. Children should have the freedom to choose what they eat and how much. Don’t buy into the clean plate club. Children are very good at self-regulating how much food they need. However, you can encourage them to try new foods.

Start small

Changing the way your serve your meals can be scary, but start small. Perhaps you begin by starting a routine before the meal, or just have the children serve themselves the fruit or vegetable. You do not have to change everything overnight. Set goals and slowly integrate a positive, family-style dining routine into your day.

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