It’s a common surprise amongst families who do the odd pickup around lunch time and see how calm and capable our group of children are at sitting down together and sharing a meal. A recent occurrence got me thinking that it’d be a good idea to share some of my knowledge and our practices with our families so that you may be able to replicate what we do here at home. It’s an important ritual that creates one of the central transition points of the day (along with sleeping and waking) and these rituals are extremely important for creating predictability in a child’s life. It’s this sense of predictability that will change experiences from a headache to a collaborative effort (so much so that they’ll also get involved in the washing and cleaning in their own way). At this age, children are extremely excited to be helpful, feel connected with their family and, obviously, eat delicious food. Leveraging these desires will help create positive behaviour change in all avenues of life.
Meal times are an extremely important time at Scola. They’re a chance for us to sit down as a group, enjoy a meal, talk to each other and learn about being respectful of each other. You wouldn’t believe the conversations we have – everything from whether or not Tess, mum’s horse, eats the same food, to whether or not teachers can jump over the moon (we can by the way we just don’t feel like doing it right now!). As I’m sure you’re equally aware, one of the hardest times to encourage positive behaviour is when a child is hungry, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Teaching a child to be respectful often occurs when they really strongly desire something, be it a toy, to go somewhere or to sit on the couch and eat dinner. Without challenging what they expect to be best practice, we aren’t encouraging them to learn. After all, no learning occurs without a little challenge.
The “why” of table etiquette is fairly straightforward: manners are crucial to a peaceful eating environment, they create calmness and prevent bowls and cups getting smashed, and they communicate different stages of meal time (e.g., we can show we’re finished eating or drinking). The “how” of how to develop nice table manners may be a little more challenging. So, with that considered, a few central things to a pleasant eating experience that I’m encouraging all of our families to try at home.
Getting started with a meal requires setting the table. We said children are excited to help, but not if it feels boring. Setting the table should feel like the precursor to one of the most exciting times of day: eating. At Scola, we use our special helper hats (giant floppy hats that our group love to wear which highlight that they’re the special helper and they have a responsibility to help the teacher). You might like to find an item at home that is used exclusively for setting the table (that means you have to say no unless they’re helping regardless of the kickback – the more you explain this the more it will help create the understanding). Once they have their special helper hat, for example, you can give them their responsibilities. At school, we set our table cloths, put out the bowls, put out the cups and fill up the water bottles.
Once the table is set, move on to washing hands for the meal. Hygiene is obviously important for germ prevention, but is a good opportunity to test some memory skills and a little counting. Here, we go through proper technique and ask them to count to 20 as they do so, finishing with a scrub of the nails in the form of hungry dinosaurs (fingers bunched, scrubbing against the other palm).
Sitting at the table is where the fun begins. This is where there’ll be the most anticipation, so likely the most excited behaviour. We set a few fundamental rules before food comes to the table:
These rules create a sense of calmness and connectedness which can be carried on throughout the meal. At home, I’d recommend a few extra steps including no TV, no technology (phones, and iPads), and no toys. We use real cutlery (cafe spoons and pastry forks are the perfect size for little hands), real bowls and real glasses. Let your child feel like they’re part of the adult world and they’ll begin to behave accordingly.
Rule 1 is fairly straightforward – one person talks at a time. Children naturally get excited to share their news at this age, but it’s an important step of learning social cues to wait for one’s turn. If you and your partner are talking and your child is bombarding you with “mum, mum, mum, mum, mum” or “dad, dad, dad, dad, dad”, relentlessly, acknowledge that you’ve heard them, ask them to wait til you’ve finished talking to your partner and then come back to them. Learning to wait is one of the most important things to teach a young child, and these organic moments will afford you those opportunities.
Rule 2 is about teaching children to respect the eating environment. A crucial point of this working is that we use glasses and ceramic bowls. We teach calmness at the table so things aren’t broken and occasionally it helps to see that these things do in fact break. Don’t be afraid when this happens, talk to your child about why we need to be careful, how fragile these things are and remind them about the situation the next time it comes up (“do you remember what happened to the bowl last time you were waving your arms around? We can’t use this bowl anymore”). Combined with rule number 3, you should start to see calmer behaviour in a matter of weeks.
Rule number 4 may be the most challenging to wrap your head around as a parent who loves and wants the best for their child. However, the science is rigid and take it from someone who has seen children’s eating habits in early childhood for nearly a decade now, giving in to your child when they “don’t like” something they haven’t tried will only create harder to change eating habits down the road. An absolute essential is that a child isn’t offered a separate meal if they don’t like something. If you’re really struggling with selective eating, break down the meals and try things together. A crowd favourite at Scola is homemade pizza day, which is brilliant because it gives children a sense of ownership over what they’re eating. Before the pizzas come out, we have a tray of salad – you don’t have to eat all of what’s on the plate, but our children are given the option to choose what they like. Making tacos at home is a great way to do the same – they might only eat the taco, meat mixture and cheese, but overtime you can introduce more and more elements by trying things together. At this age, children will learn a lot from watching and collaborating, so do things together and watch the changes occur!
Here’s a few considerations:
Sitting down and having this evening meal together will afford some precious family time that children need to fill their emotional cup. It’s also going to use a lot of energy to practice these planning and organising skills leaving them more prepared for a restful sleep in the evening.
So with that, a little homework that your dog would be delighted to eat! Below, I have a sausage roll recipe that is dead simple and has been used in my family for decades. Sausage rolls are just about a given for any child to eat, allowing for one challenge: pastry and filling being eaten before getting another (revisiting our try it before you don’t like it rationale). Sausage rolls are great because you can focus on just the initial table manners of sitting and eating, while trying not to talk with a mouth full of food at the same time. Keep your children involved in the setup, cooking and cleaning and watch your mealtimes change from a mad rush to your favourite time of the day.