family smiling at each other over the dinner table

Taking the time to create mealtime rituals and routines can offer success and be more meaningful for families.

Family mealtimes aren’t just about eating! They are about cultivating rich and thoughtful interactions that embed learning with loving. For many children who have been adopted, mealtimes with their adoptive families can mean new rituals and routines.  

7 Tips for Setting the Table for Successful Family Mealtimes  

Here are 7 tips that lend themselves to the creation of more meaningful meals in your home.  

  • Set a regular schedule and routine. Develop regular and consistent family mealtimes. Try to limit grazing during the day, which can lead to reduced appetites for scheduled mealtimes. Also, offer mealtimes in the same locations in your home. Main meals are always served at the dinner table, for example, and snacks are served at a special snack table. Using consistent methods helps children know what is to be expected, which leads to reduced stress and increased success!  
  • Eat together. Eat alongside your children! Children learn by watching others, and they enjoy doing what others are doing. So eating together is a great way to let them know that foods are safe and nourishing. It also allows children to know that nothing more exciting is happening in that moment, which can reduce distracted tendencies, anxieties or fears of missing out on other experiences. Even if you do not want to eat at the same time as your child, set aside the time to be present alongside them. Sip on a drink or have a small snack while they eat. Being an active participant alongside them can make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone. 
  • Teach by modeling. Children learn not only how to do things, but also what is expected of them by watching others. Mealtimes are a terrific place to show children what expectations you have for yourself as well as for them. Keeping this in mind, if you want a child to eat a specific food, you’ll need to eat it too! If a child sees that an adult dislikes something or refuses to partake in it, that behavior is what is learned. Additionally, if you want a child to sit for a meal or not look at electronic devices while eating, model these behaviors as well. Caregivers are the greatest of teachers!
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  • Offer choices. Everyone loves feeling like they have the ability to control their situation, including our children. One way to do this at mealtimes is to offer a child specific choices. This might look like offering choices for what to eat for a snack, which drink to have or how many sweet potato fries go on their plate. It might also look like offering options for which cup or bib to use, which seat to sit in at the table or what music to play in the background. Keep the number of choices offered small (two to three maximum at a time), and avoid offering the “buffet approach.” Too many choices can become overwhelming for a child to choose from, and difficult to manage as the adult. 
  • Make mealtimes not only about the food. Mealtimes are a wonderful chance to connect with one another, whether your child is younger or older. Instead of talking only about the food (“Take another bite!,” “How does it taste?,” “Do you want more?”), try talking about how the broccoli looks like a tiny tree or how delicious the meal smells. Share about your day, your favorite book or song, or what you’re excited to do afterward. Focus on the experience together during meals. Lastly, avoid external distractions, such as watching or using electronic devices, which can not only limit meaningful interactions, but also negatively impact a child’s ability to understand their hunger and satiation signals.
  • Provide responsibilities. Just as children thrive on schedules and routines, many often enjoy or even prefer being offered specific responsibilities around mealtimes. Offer children different jobs, such as assisting with meal planning and/or grocery shopping, lending a hand with cooking and food preparation, setting the table, serving food to others and cleaning up after meals. Ensure these responsibilities are sensitive to the child’s age, development and capacity. For example, a young child may be able to assist with pouring items into bowls and washing veggies, while an older child may be able to partake in more complex preparation tasks. Children may choose to keep the same roles each day, or they may enjoy the opportunity to choose a different role over time.   
  • Set appropriate expectations. Everyone is coming to a mealtime with different experiences, abilities and energy. For example, a young child might not yet be expected (or able) to sit for a meal longer than 15–20 minutes, or they may frequently reject new foods offered to them. Another child might be distracted more frequently, need ongoing assistance with self-feeding due to motor challenges or need fewer choices presented so that they don’t become overwhelmed. Knowing and adjusting expectations for each child is key to maintaining a more positive mealtime. 

So forget the stage! Dinner tables are what (figuratively) need to be set in order to have more successful mealtimes. As always, if you have questions or challenges surrounding mealtimes in your home, seek the support of an expert in your community, such as a feeding specialist or occupational therapist. 

For more details on feeding best practices, download Holt International’s Feeding and Positioning Manual: Guidelines for Working with Babies and Children.   

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