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Nebraska Department of Education
Nutrition Services
301 Centennial Mall South
PO Box 94987
Lincoln, NE 68509-9487

(800) 731-2233 (Nebraska Only)
or (402) 471-2488
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Child & Adult Care Food Program

Child Caring Online - information about the Child and Adult Care Food Program

Adults serve an important role at meal time

Have you ever wondered why it is good for caregivers to sit with the children during meal times and eat the same food that the children eat?

Adults seated at the table, eating the same foods that the children eat, serve as role models. Watching adults eat influences children's own food choices, encourages children to try the foods and helps children develop healthy attitudes toward the food. The adult can serve as a good role model by having a positive attitude toward foods and the meal time experience. Taste everything, trying not to show your personal food preferences.

While seated at the table, the adults can also provide guidance to help children serve themselves. Allowing children to serve themselves helps them learn to listen and respond to their bodies' cues and to take responsibility for their own well being. It also helps children develop skills such as social skills and motor skills.

Start by letting children, especially the younger ones, serve themselves something easy such as rolls or bread. As the children develop skills, gradually increase the number and variety of foods they serve themselves. Pass the food around the table and encourage, but do not pressure, each child to put some on his or her plate. Allow each child to decide what and how much of the food to eat.

Try not to worry that some children will take too little. On the other hand, if some children seem to be taking too much and not leaving enough for other children, provide guidance.

Encourage children to take some of all foods served, but ask that they take only one serving at a time. Make sure children know that enough food is available for seconds. This may help them take smaller servings the first time around. You might say something like, "If you aren't sure you can eat it, take just a little bit. You can have more if it tastes good to you." It is also alright to let them know that they must leave enough for other children.

Serving sizes can be somewhat controlled by having the children use serving scoops spoons or ladles that hold reasonable portion sizes. Remember to make sure the serving utensils are child-size and that the children can handle them. Younger children may need you to physically assist or guide them in serving themselves.

Adults seated at the table can also ensure that children serve themselves in a sanitary manner. Make sure each child washes his or her hands immediately before the meal service and after coughing or sneezing into hands, or touching dirty or contaminated items. Remind children to take the food they touch. They should not touch food left in containers or the insides of the serving containers as they pass them around.

Adults seated at the table can encourage children to eat. To do this, talk with them about the foods during meal time. Discuss what the foods are, how they are grown, where they come from, and how they help the body grow. Also, discuss the colors, textures, shapes, tastes, differences and similarities of foods they are eating.

Make positive, encouraging statements when discussing the food and the meal. Avoid using negative, directive or pressuring statements. Encourage children to make positive comments about the food and guide the complainers to change the subject and discuss topics other than the food. Give a smile or a positive comment when children eat their food.

Avoid over encouraging, pressuring, or forcing children to eat or to make healthy food choices. Forcing, or even over encouraging children to eat, often leads to power struggles and disappointments, instead of helping them eat better. Making children eat and/or using food as a reward or punishment can cause children to dislike food and develop unhealthy attitudes about food. These attitudes can lead to eating problems in adulthood. Offering bribes or rewards for eating foods should also be avoided as this only reinforces the notion that certain foods are more or less desirable than others.

Adults seated at the table can encourage pleasant meal time conversation. Pleasant conversation at meal time creates a relaxed atmosphere that helps make meal time enjoyable.

Encourage children to talk with and listen to others at the table. Start conversations by bringing up topics of interest. Be a good role model in conversation; listen to the children and maintain eye contact. Help the children take turns; see that everyone gets a chance to talk. Set limits when necessary. remind the children to use "indoor" voices, change the subject when necessary, or suggest that a topic be discussed at a later time.

Again, meal time is a good time to talk about the different foods the children are eating and to teach them about nutrition.

The adult seated at the table can help keep distractions to a minimum. Children eat better when the atmosphere is calm and distraction free. When the meal time is chaotic and disruptive, it is difficult for children to focus on the meal and eat.

Children and adults should be seated during the meal and excessive amounts of getting up and down should be avoided. Children will often stop eating when the caregiver leaves the table. Serving the meal family style and placing all of the food on the table decreases the need for getting up and down to get more food.

Refocus the children who are bothering or distracting others or who are distracted themselves. Guide misbehavior into acceptable behavior. Paying attention to a misbehaving child may increase the unwanted behavior. Give the child choices which encourage him or her to join in the meal time in an appropriate manner, and then use natural consequences if the child chooses a behavior which is not appropriate.

DOs and DON'Ts for meal time

Adapted from: Bits and Bites , Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment


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