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Meal Pattern Minute: Preparing Children for Family Style Dining

April 19, 2024

Your center or family child care home has decided to begin family style meal service. The Child and Adult Care Food Program operators have started training on how to serve meals in this type of meal setting and utensils to purchase to make it easier for children to pour or scoop food onto their individual cups and plates. But what about the children? How do you help children develop skills to perform these meal time tasks in a fun way?  

Tune in to this Meal Pattern Minute where Isabel Ramos-Lebron, MS, RDN, LD, gives a couple of ideas to get you started in motor skill development for children. 


Use these posters to help remind children about what to do during family style meal service. 


Want even more ideas? Look at the resources below to guide you through family style meal service. 

Family Style Meal Service with Children in the Child and Adult Care Food Program Operator Booklet 

Talk About How Meals Will Be Served  

  • Tell children that their classroom will start to serve meals and snacks in a different way. The food will be on the tables in shared bowls and plates. Children will take the food from the shared bowls and plates and put it on their own plates. Milk may be available in pitchers for children to pour and serve themselves from. 
  • Talk about the rules for serving themselves in family style meals. 
  • Discuss important steps for family style meal service and the children’s role. 

Provide Opportunities for Children to Learn Through Play  

Add child-size serving spoons, tongs, and pitchers to play areas. This will allow children to strengthen their fine motor skills (grasping, pinching, picking up small objects) that they need to serve themselves. For example, children can practice:  

  • Pouring liquid from a pitcher into a cup at the water table. 
  • Scooping cotton balls with a measuring cup and putting them in a small bowl. 
  • Using child-size tongs to move pretend food or pieces of yarn from one plate to another. 
  • Practice setting the table using place mats, plates, cups, forks and spoons in the play area.

Start Family Style Meal Service Slowly  

  • Have the children practice with one meal component before serving all meal components family style. For example, children can pass around dinner rolls with child-size tongs while you pre-plate the rest of the meal components.
  • Begin with a snack. It requires less meal preparation and tends to include foods that are easier for children to serve themselves. Serve more items “family style” as children strengthen their skills. 

Explain That Children Can be “Special Helpers” at Mealtime  

There are many ways children can help during family style meal service. Explain that you may assign a role to them at mealtime. Tasks may include:  

  • Setting individual place settings (bowls, plates, cups, napkins, and utensils).
  • Placing serving bowls and plates of food on the table. 
  • Cleaning up messes.


Webinar: CACFP Trainers’ Circle Webinar: Family Style Meal Service With Children in the CACFP  (Coming Soon)

Watch as USDA’s Team Nutrition and explore a new, free resource to help CACFP sites start or enhance family style meal service with children at mealtime. Learn tips for preparing and supporting children, training staff, and meeting CACFP meal pattern requirements to successfully serve meals “family style.” The Nebraska Department of Education will also share how they developed and utilized tools to train child care providers on family style meal service.  


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