Family mealtime can provide a rich learning environment for young children

Clear the table and make way for learning! Children benefit from more than just five food groups when they share a family meal.

When the lazy days of summer turn into hurried fall schedules it can become easy to neglect an important part of family life where an abundance of learning takes place; the family table. Research by Child Trends has reported several positive outcomes for families and children who share meals at the table.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that eating together can improve parent and child relationships. When families share a meal, they generally are in a position where they face each other and share conversation. Mealtime can provide an opportunity to teach about family history, culture and values. A “pass the squash” request could open a conversation of likes or dislikes, serve as a reminder of Grandpa’s garden or provide an opportunity to share a memory of your childhood Christmas dinner. Remember, young children learn by listening to and watching you and other adults in their lives.

Mealtime conversations have been tied to improve literacy skills in children. “Did you want a big portion or small?” “Do you want your potatoes on the side of your plate or in the middle?” “Could you choose and wash four large apples for us to bake for dessert tonight?” “Do you remember what side of your plate the spoon goes on; left or right?” Children may learn new words to add to their vocabulary when you discuss color, smell, texture and taste of a new food item (tangerine, pungent, mushy and spicy).

Children are more likely to eat something they have helped to prepare or serve. Let your children have input into your shopping trip or planning a menu. Your food choices and behavior can be a positive influence on your child’s nutrition and eating habits. Preschool children can assist in setting the table. The Family Dinner Project from Harvard University offers many resources to assist you with fun activities, menus and recipes, recommendations for dinner conversations and other tips that can help put some fun into your family meals.

Build success into mealtime experiences for young children. Infants and toddlers should always have a place at the table. Learning to sit in a chair at a table is a skill children will need from day one of day care, head start or pre-school. Let a young child assist in serving themselves. “Do you think you are hungry enough for two spoonfuls tonight or just one?” Think about the size of plates and serving utensils. Pay attention to the size of a child’s glass. Are they able to pour their own milk from a small pitcher? Helping tasks can assist in developing large and small motor skills important for academic success.

Make a rule to turn off television and other media during the family meal to encourage conversation and limit interruptions. Have a basket where all family members can deposit their phones before a meal begins. Set limits and serve as a role model to your family. Make the dinner table a place where conversations center on family members and the meal on the table.

Family meals are a time to regroup in a safe setting during a busy day in an “intentional” act. Make family meals a priority and add them to your schedule. A family meal can be worked in and around schedules of family members; it might be having breakfast together. It is not necessary to plan a time-consuming menu. Take your fast food meal out of the vehicle and serve it at the family table. Relax if you do not have fine china or dishes that match. It is the coming together, face-to-face, that give family meals their value.

In “The Surprising Power of Family Meals,” author Miriam Weinstein suggests we “rededicate our eating tables to their primary function when mealtime rolls around.” Clear off the bills, homework and children’s artwork. Sharing a meal at the family table is one small thing families can control when raising children. For the health and well-being of your children and family, reinvent your family table.

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