Feeding children while in care can be one of the biggest responsibilities that a provider faces each day. Menu planning, grocery shopping and meeting requirements are just some of those responsibilities. We also know providers strive to do what’s best for the children in their care and use best practices whenever they can in their programs. The 4-C Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) believes that serving meals and snacks family style incorporates best practices into feeding children while in care.

Along with information on family style dining, we will look at serving sizes and how serving family style gives children a choice as to what and how much they choose to eat. We in turn have asked providers who are currently serving Family Style Dining to share how they got started, share their challenges, their accomplishments and overall outcomes with the process.

Why Should You Serve Family Style?

Family Style Dining encourages learning and development not only at the table, but away from mealtime as well. Children learn independence, social skills and other important habits that will last them throughout adulthood.

Types of Meal Service

Meals can be served either Pre-portioned or Family Style.

  • Pre-portioned – means that the minimal requirement (or more) of food for each required component is prepared by an adult and given to each child on plate or tray. All food must be served at the same time, including milk.
  • Family Style Dining – means that the food is placed on each table for each child to help him/herself. Children may then select the foods they want and the amount of each food they want. Providers should offer foods to children at different times during the meal to assure children are offered an opportunity to taste all foods and ensure minimum portions are available for each child. Providers also sit with children during the meal service to model positive meal time behavior, assist with serving food and encourage social development that goes along with feeding and sitting down to enjoy a meal.

The Science Behind Family Style Dining

A University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environment Sciences (ACES) studied the feeding practices of two-to-five year olds in 118 child-care centers. They found that given the opportunity children who serve themselves are better able to regulate their intake of food by innately tuning into their own body’s cues for hunger and satiety (fullness), than when food was pre-plated. The study stated that adults have a tendency to overestimate how much a child wants to eat, instead of serving what is a more appropriate serving for the age of that child.

How do providers set children up for success when introducing Family Style Dining?

  • Denise – set up the environment for children to help with the setting of the table. During the meal children serve themselves and pass foods to one another. Children clean up their own placemat and put dishes into a tub and one child is responsible for washing the table. Denise plans her meal ahead of time, featuring Family Style vegetarian meals, made from scratch.
  • Emily – take the time to find the appropriate serving dishes and utensils, such as tongs young children can operate, bowls small enough to pass, and milk serving containers with lids (such as a syrup pitcher).
  • Lisa – I start out by putting food in the center of the table and serve the kids, from there they gradually gain the confidence to serve themselves.
  • Emily – teach children how to prep food by peeling bananas, oranges and hardboiled egg or use a small butter knife to spread and slice soft foods like peanut butter and cheese. Prep some of the food at the table – it teaches them children the whole parts of the food, exploring textures and appearance of peels, stems and seeds and counting the slices and talking about how the food was grown.
  • Nancy – Allow children to do what they’re developmentally able to do, but realize thatyounger children may need assistance. For example, put milk or dish out food for children age two and under. Also, the older kids can help the younger kids by getting them more servings, and the older kids feel proud of helping.
  • Emily – Involve the children in meal planning for the following week. Share information with the children about meal planning during conversations, but planning meals could also involve using photos, felt pieces of foods or store fliers to select foods. She also gardens with the children, so food can come straight from their garden, from the farmer’s market or on occasion from a field trip taken together at the grocery store.

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