With busy schedules, sports, extracurricular activities, and more, it’s easy to push family dining aside and have lots of meals on-the-go. This is sometimes necessary and simply a part of life, but is it important to make time for eating together as a family? Studies show that family-style dining is actually quite valuable in the social and emotional development of your children. Some childcare and educational programs actually incorporate family-style dining with classmates into their school culture. Here are some things to consider when thinking about the benefits of family-style dining.

Mealtime Logistics

A family all reaching for items on a table as they share a meal together.

Image via Flickr by wuestenigel

In order to successfully share and enjoy a meal around a table with others, we need to be able to manage mealtime logistics as we try to get what we want while also helpings others. At home, while we’re eating around the table, we naturally need to use manners and understand social cues in order to get what we need. Practicing “please” and “thank you” and asking politely for someone to pass the salt are important things that can happen around a table. 

Children also need to be in tune with and aware of what others are doing during family-style dining. This kind of awareness is a major stepping stone of social development. As we think about the things that we want on our plate, we also need to be aware of what’s on the table, what items others are currently holding, and what items are being requested. So, if you want some butter, you need to know whether there is butter on the table, whether someone is currently using it, and what their name is. That’s a lot of paying attention and multitasking. 

Using clear, direct, and polite language to ask for something you want is a big deal to a small child. Infants cry when they want something, and we have to guess what that is. As kids get older, they learn the words to communicate their wants and needs, but they also must develop the independence to ask. Many toddlers choose to whine or fuss to get help even when they know the words needed to ask. Crème de la Crème starts family-style meals as early as 4 years old with our PATHS program focused on character education

Whether the child is eating around the table at home or at school, they are learning and using many skills during the process. If you are eating together at home, try putting the food and any condiments in the middle of the table and encouraging your children to ask for what they would like to eat and to serve themselves. This may take some extra planning and creativity to manage hot plates or picky eaters, but with practice, learning to ask for and pass food around a table is an exciting and beneficial skill for kids to learn. 

Healthy Eating Habits

Family-style dining also promotes healthy eating habits. When our kids are constantly snacking, eating on the go, or even eating while playing, they tend to eat less nutritional food. Bags of chips, fruit snacks, and applesauce pouches aren’t bad in moderation, but a constant diet of those foods isn’t well-balanced. Families tend to make better food choices when sharing a meal at the table together

You can keep a closer eye on what your kids are eating when they’re all at one table filling their plates. A quick look at your child’s plate will tell you what kinds of nutrients they are getting and which foods they’re choosing. Some families use certain rules to encourage trying different foods like having a child eat at least one bite of something new or something they don’t like before filling up on food they do enjoy. 

Take this opportunity to teach your kids about what a balanced plate looks like. Help them learn which foods count as grains, or dairy, or vegetables, and so on. Even if they don’t like certain foods, they might be encouraged to learn that they can find many different options within each of the food categories to still achieve a balanced diet. Children learn about the different food groups and the importance of nutrition as early as kindergarten and even in some preschools, which is why Crème de la Crème also includes nutrition in our curriculum

Opportunities for Conversation

Regular conversations with family members and friends help kids develop emotional intelligence. Eating together at the end of the day creates the perfect opportunity for these conversations. When you ask a child about what they did at school that day, they need to think through the various experiences they had and decide what they want to share. If they choose to share a negative experience, you get the opportunity to learn about that experience and how they feel about it. If they share a positive experience, they can learn to recognize things that they enjoy and why. 

Learning to name, explain, and relate to emotions is another important developmental milestone that is encouraged by family-style dining. You may even come up with a game that you play at dinner like “Good, Bad, Good” where each person shares one good thing about their day, one bad thing, and then another good thing. This helps focus on the good but also recognizes and addresses difficulties or disappointments. 

On a more surface level, kids eating together at a table can simply talk about which foods they do and don’t enjoy. This again helps with social skills, learning to speak to and listen to others, connect ideas, and relate to one another. Whether sharing a meal with mom and dad, friends during lunch at school, or all of the extended family over holidays and celebrations, there is so much for kids to learn and many ways to help their development by dining around a table. 

At Crème de la Crème, we take child development very seriously and strive to provide a welcoming, comfortable, and helpful learning environment for all children attending our programs. We stand alongside parents to support healthy emotional and social development as well as educational opportunities for kids in childcare, preschool, and after-school classes. Let us know if there are specific ways that we can help you come up with a plan to help your child learn social and emotional skills while in school. We at Crème de la Crème are here and happy to help.