Mealtimes are a major part of a growing child’s day. They serve as anchor points that help a child know what time of day it is, and what is coming next. As nannies, our charges often lead busy, active lives full of sports games, after-school lessons, and play groups, and notion of adults and children sitting down to the same meal regularly – otherwise known as “family style dining” – almost seems like a luxury of a bygone era. However, family style dining exposes children to numerous developmental and social benefits, backed by research, some of which are touched upon throughout this post. Nannies play a powerful role in the family dynamic, and have a unique opportunity to support positive family habits. As you’ll see below, this method of eating creates a positive atmosphere for developing children, respects their natural preferences, and is an incredibly positive habit for nannies to encourage their nanny families to adopt.
There are two main aspects I want to highlight about family style dining:
- Everyone serves themselves. Family style dining means that rather than serving up pre-plated, portioned-out meals for each person, food is placed in serving plates or bowls in the center of the table, allowing each person to serve themselves. The US Department of Agriculture recommends parents and caregivers allow children to begin serving themselves and choosing their own serving portions (with some adult supervision) around the age of two. The family style model encourages a number of positive traits – independence and decision making, self-regulation (the ability to determine when they are full and stop on their own accord), bonding and communication, and basic table manners (“pass the beans, please!”). Researchers have even found a correlation between dinner table conversations in which children participated and a boost in literacy and overall vocabulary.
- Children and adults eat together. Family style dining also means children and adults sit down to the same meal, and the children eat what the adults eat (and yes, that includes any child that is old enough to be on table foods). This provides an amazing opportunity for adults to model positive mealtimes. You may not think this is important, but in fact, it’s actually vital. When children see adults savor meals and try new dishes, they develop trust, and in my opinion, trust is an absolute game-changer when it comes to getting them to try new things. Imagine if the tables were turned. Would you be comfortable trying a strange new food if someone sat it in front of you and watched you while you ate it? You’d be much more receptive to it if someone sat down and ate it with you, right? I have no doubts that children are the same.
Family style meals need not be stressful. With a little effort, a nanny can help make them part of the routine. Here are my tips for making them work:
- Be realistic. Focus on one meal – the one you most often eat at home – as the starting point. Or simply choose one or two days a week to make it a priority. My nanny family is constantly on the go, and sometimes I pack a meal for my charges to eat while they’re out and about. However, I work late on Thursday nights, and my charges know that’s the night we slow things down and eat at the dinning room table together, without fail. Incorporate family style dining into the routine in a way that works with the rhythms of your nanny family and their lifestyle. Prioritizing it once or twice a week can still have an impact.
- Serve one dish your charges like. If the main dish is a tasty new bolognese or curried dal recipe, offer sides you know they already enjoy and are somewhat healthy, like crunchy whole grain bread or mashed up sweet potatoes. If that’s all they eat, at least they’ve left the table with a full belly and watched you eat a healthy dish.
- Involve the children whenever possible. There are so many ways for a nanny to do this! If you do the grocery run, have them help you hunt for the ingredients and inspect them before they go in the cart. Invite them to help you prepare the food, or at least do it in their presence. Call them over to smell the herbs and spices. Have them help you set the table. Yes, time is always of the essence, but most of us can fit at least one of these things into the day.
- Relax. We all know how frustrating it can be when a child seems to refuse all foods with any semblance of nutrition – especially a meal you’ve worked hard to prepare – but it’s not a hill worth dying on. Children catch on very quickly when a parent or caregiver is on edge, and you can quickly become locked in a battle of wills over their eating habits. As Karen Le Billon writes in French Kids Eat Everything, “opposition to food cannot persist if there is no opponent.” Whatever you do as a nanny or caregiver, do not engage in mealtime battles. Influence, but do not force, and understand that, like you, children are human, and there are many factors that might cause them to resist eating a certain food on a certain day. Let it go and enjoy that delicious food.