Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Family Style Dining in Preschool: A How-To Guide

Transitioning to family style dining can be an intimidating task for many teachers. Its easy to imagine a free-for-all occurring when the children have direct access to the meal, or mounds of spilled food all over the floor. In order for family style dining to work, you have to be prepared and you will need lots of patience.

To begin, child-sized dishes and utensils are a must. If things are too big, the children will not be able to manipulate them. This will lead to lots of spilled food and both children and adults getting frustrated. Here are the bowls and serving utensils we are using now at Aspen Leaf Preschool. Everything is inexpensive (it's all form Ikea, actually). The silver pitchers are meant to be for frothing milk but they are the perfect size for preschoolers. Our serving bowls are food storage container minus the lids. They came in a pack of five and we usually use the middle-sized ones. The small serving utensils were in the children's section and are meant to be toys, but they are just perfect for serving food. They are even dishwasher safe!

 These are the dishes we use (they're also from Ikea).

I have the children help me put the food into the serving bowls. Usually I'll choose one or two children to help with this, and one or two others to set the table. At the beginning, I'll set a napkin at each seat and instruct the children to place one bowl or plate on top of each napkin.

Then one cup and one spoon or fork on each plate. Later, when they have gotten used to the process, they are able to set the dishes out without the napkins marking the spots.

We always wait for everyone to sit down before starting the meal. To pass the time while we wait for everyone to sit down, I ask the children to open their napkins and "set their places." A set place looks like the picture below.

Once everyone is at the table, we sing (about our hands):

 Open, shut them,
Open, shut them,
Give a little clap, clap, clap.
 Open, shut them,
Open, shut them,
Put them in your lap, lap, lap.
This helps to get everyone's attention, calm the children down, and let them know that the meal is about to start. Before passing the bowls around, I show the children how many of each food they should take. I do this by serving myself and narrating what I'm doing. For example I would take two scoops of cereal and say, "This is the cereal. I can take two scoops. One, two. Now I'm going to pass it."

If we are having toast or bagels, I will set out a bowl of jelly. The children take a scoop of jelly with the serving spoon and then spread it with their knives (whenever we use knives we talk about how to be careful with them. Even though they are only plastic, it is important for children to know how to be safe with them).

The hardest part about family style dining is allowing the children to pour their own drinks. Inevitably they are going to spill, and at the beginning they are going to spill every time. But practice makes perfect and after a week or so, everyone will being pouring pretty well. For the first couple of weeks, I will use two pitchers. One big and one small one. I'll fill the big one with milk or water and pour only little bits into the smaller pitcher at a time. The children then pour from the small one. This way they can pour all of it without over-flowing their cups.

Once they get used to pouring, I fill the small pitcher about half way and show them how to stop pouring before the cup over flows.The first time a child pours without spilling is a big deal and I always make sure to compliment him or her.

At the end of the meal, each child cleans up his or her own place. We have a nice big sink in the classroom for all the dirty dishes, while napkins and uneaten food are placed in the trash. Every day we talk about what goes in the trash and what goes in the sink. If you're not mindful, you'll end up losing all of your dishes to the garbage!

Make sure to always sit down with the class and demonstrate the kinds of behaviors you expect from them. In order for this to work, the teachers have to lead by example. So make sure to set a place for yourself! Once everyone gets used to family style dining, you will find that it is much easier than making plates for the children and serving them. It is also much more pleasant to sit at the table with the children and have a conversation than it is to stand over them refilling their plates and cups.

To read about the benefits of using family style dining, check out my earlier post Family Style Dining in Preschool: Why it's Important.

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