Main Reading, Class 4

Making Mealtimes Special

I have lots and lots of thoughts about mealtimes! First I’ll put my thoughts on ‘how to think about it,’ and then I’ll look at more practical pieces on how to help things go smoothly before, during, and after the meal.

At BWK we ate outdoors in almost every weather. That’s me, on the left

Making Mealtimes Special

The very first piece of changing the dynamics of a meal is to change your goals. If your goal is to make your kids eat a healthy, balanced meal, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. You cannot make a child eat, and trying to do so only ends up creating power struggles around food, which is certainly counter-productive. I read about one child nutritionist who said, “You get to choose the what, where, and when. The children get to choose how much, and whether.” This is a really hard idea for some parents to get their heads around, especially if your child is under-weight. But it’s true! Therefore, if you’d like to have your child eat more, change your mealtime goals to this:

-To present your child with the opportunity to eat a healthy, balanced meal, and

-To create an enjoyable experience at the table

When you do these two things, children are much more likely to choose to eat their food, and likely to eat more of it, whether they’re a picky eater or a slow eater.

How do you create an enjoyable experience at the table? It wasn’t until I was poring over these videos that I realized that I have a very definite structure to my meals, and I’ve had it for a long time. That structure is: Ritual, Connecting Conversation, Entertainment, and back to Ritual.

Candle candle, burning bright, thank you for your golden light!


There are lots of things to be done at a meal before we actually start eating: washing hands, getting to the table, giving thanks or saying a blessing, serving the food.  Only then do you get to actually start eating!  With all of these leading-up-to-the-main-event activities, it’s very helpful to have LOTS of ritual. They help make thing go smoothly, and they’re part of what makes mealtimes special, because a meal isn’t just about eating, it’s about coming together and being together as a group or as a family. Ritual allows you to do that, while getting tasks done at the same time. Additionally, having lots of ritual during this pre-eating part of the meal helps children be able to wait for their food. They know exactly what’s going to happen, and exactly how, so they can wait.

If you are having trouble with the transition into mealtimes, think about how you could build some connecting rituals into that time. Finger games are great for this, as are songs, a grace, and rituals like lighting a candle. Even the serving, the way I do it, is very ritualized. Now, if you eat at a full-sized table and kids can’t help to serve, you can still make things more predictable and ritualized by having a little serving song, and by serving in the same order each time: perhaps youngest to oldest, or clockwise around the table.

Our springtime centerpiece made of willow branches. We colored the eggs one by one, and each child got to take one home at the end

Connecting Conversation

Once everyone has been served and is starting to eat, then the meal has really begun, and that’s when I focus on Connecting Conversation. Conversation is a bit of skill: the idea that one person talks and others listen, then another person talks, etc. Even if it’s just you, your spouse, and a little one, alternate who gets the attention so that everyone feels included and part of the group.  This means not talking with your spouse over your child’s head for long periods of time, and conversely, not letting your child completely dominate the conversation.  For slightly older kids, one topic that can be really connecting is for each person to share One Thing That Was Fun and One Thing That Was Friendly that they did that day.

If your group is larger, sometimes conversations goes smoothly and other times lots of people want to talk at once. When this happens I’ll smooth things out by saying how things will proceed: “first we’ll listen to so-and-so, then so-and-so can talk,” etc.

Another aspect of  the connecting conversation centers around the food. I like to serve the children only a little bit of food at a time, so they can practice asking for more, and that’s a bonding experience for us. Children who are little I prompt them to say “More, please!” and children who are a bit older can ask the ‘very polite way’: “May I have some more, please?” We don’t think of asking for more as a bonding experience, but is is if we make it so.


If you have’t already done so, watch my 3-minute video on “please and thank you” here:




I’ve noticed that children often eat in ‘waves,’ often with significant times of resting in between.  When you start to notice the kids going into a ‘trough’ where they’re resting between waves, your task is to make staying at the table as enjoyable as possible until they get into the next wave of eating.  This is where we move on to entertaining.  If you have a group of kids, this phase begins when some children are done eating but others are not.

Then, as the meal starts to wind down, some children are done eating but some are not, and that’s when I move on to entertaining. I do this with stories, songs, and games. Littler children love simple songs: “the wheels on the bus” if we hear a bus or truck go by, “do you know the muffin man?” if we’re eating muffins, or any nursery rhyme. Slightly older children also love games like “I spy,” or “who’s wearing a shirt with ____”, etc.   Look in the Extra Videos for lots of songs and finger games to choose from.  Pick one and do it till you know it really well, and then pick another.

One way that I encourage children to start their next wave of eating is that I will punctuate my songs or storytelling with the phrase, “Take a bite!” and I take a bite. I chew and swallow, then continue my song or story. Even picky eaters will happily go through big bowls of food this way!  Some parents use the phrase, “I take a bite and you take a bite!” and then they take their bite.

Many people feel a little intimidated telling stories with no book to read from. Don’t worry! You’ll learn it by telling it over and over again. Toddlers are VERY forgiving. Choose a story with lots of repetition (like The Three Little Pigs, or The Three Bears). If telling a traditional tale feels beyond you, try telling stories from when you were a child. This is a great way to let children know about things you did, family history, and family values. Also, they’re just fun. Another thing you can do is make up stories. This works especially well if you invent a character or two, and have them go through ongoing adventures. I had one group of children where I would tell stories about an unfriendly cat that I had as a child, Mowwie. She would stay outside at night, and I would make up adventures that she’d have while I was asleep. The kids LOVED these stories. Another year, Pirate Jack was all the rage. The story would always start out the same: “Once upon a time, there was a Pirate named Jack. He didn’t live in a house like ordinary people. He lived on a boat. And he had a pet, but it wasn’t a cat, and it wasn’t a dog… it was a–” I’d pause, and the children would chorus, “A parrot!” Jack and his parrot Polly had many adventures.

At any rate, just jump in and try it. It’s easier than you think and the kids will LOVE it.  By making mealtimes enjoyable, they’re about more than just getting food into our bellies; they’re about building our sense of community.

My mom uses Redbird to dismiss each child

Back to Ritual 

And now we get to the part where the meal is coming to a close.  Rather than having things just kind of disintegrate, it can be really lovely to pull things together and end with a nice ritual.  An additional benefit to having a distinct ending to your meal is that it gives a defined period of time for your child to eat, and this can give picky eaters a sense of urgency to actually get some food in their mouths before their opportunity to eat has ended.

How you want to end your meal is up to you.  Does everyone stay at the table until everyone is done?  Or can people leave when they finish?  Either is fine, and at Rainbow Bridge we actually did both: for our main morning snack and our main lunch, everyone sat down together and everyone ended together.  For our smaller snacks before and after nap, children could leave the table when they were done eating, taking their bowls to the counter to show they were done.

If you decide that everyone should stay at the table until the end of the meal, it’s always a balancing act to know when to end it. On the particular day we watch in the video, I’ve waited a little too long, and you can see that everyone gets a bit antsy. One of the ways I help antsy kids to keep it together is to stand behind them and help them straighten up their bodies, their bowls and their cups.

OK, let’s talk about different ways to weave rituals into the end of a meal.  One way I do it is to let the children know that the meal is wrapping up by singing out, “Last little nibbles,” and then, “Last sips of water.”  I discovered that some children ate the vast majority of their meals during these last little nibbles, so I started singing each one twice.  Then we sing a short song and blow out the candle; this is the “official” ending of the meal.

Of course, there are still quite a few steps after the “official” ending that need to happen: cleaning hands, face, plates, and table.  Again, ritual can be very helpful to letting these go smoothly.  If you have only one young child, these rituals might be quite short; with my own 10-month-old daughter, I sing a song while I go get a warm wet wash cloth.  I sing another song while I wipe her hands, then I make fun buzzing sound-effects while I wipe her face.  I unclip her from her high chair and she picks up the cloth; I carry her over to the sink and she drops the cloth in the sink.  However, we do it the same each time, and she knows exactly how things go.

For larger groups, you may need more elaborate rituals to help the children make it through the steps, and with older children they can really enjoy more elaborate rituals.  When I have one- and two-year-olds I make the face-washing game very simple, generally swiping my face, hands, and the table in front of me (with different sound effects for each one), but with older children it can become almost like a puppet show that we all do together. Children also love to help clear the table and sweep the floor after a meal.


Part 2: Things to Do to Help Meals Go Smoothly

Meals can be a great time for a family to bond, or they can be times that try your patience. If your meals are currently frustrating, it will take some effort to change that dynamic. But it’s an effort that is well worth it. Here are some tips:


-Allow your children to be involved in preparing for the meal. It’s tempting to try and push them away since you’re busy, there are lots of hot things around, and you’re a little tired and grouchy yourself, especially if it’s dinnertime and you’ve been working all day. However, your children desperately want to be with you, and if you’re ignoring them, they’ll get your attention in whatever way they can figure (usually by annoying you). So instead, incorporate them into the process. If they are very little, this might involve putting them into a high-chair on one edge of the kitchen. Describe what you’re doing, and give them a taste of each ingredient, and smells of the spices. Take little nibbles yourself, to keep you going. Drink lots of water. Play peekaboo with the dishcloth. If your child is a bit older, set her up helping you chop veggies or tearing apart lettuce leaves for the salad. Still give out nibbles. Nibbles are great because they get the digestive juices flowing, and they keep kids from crashing altogether if they’re really hungry. Read this great article “A Child’s Place Is in the Kitchen”

-Along those same lines, make sure that you start your meals with enough time that things can feel spacious leading up to the meal. Rice cookers and Crock Pots are your friends. Do as much of the meal preparation as you can at an earlier time when things feel easy: chop your veggies for dinner after naptime, and put them in a bowl to wait for cooking later. Put your broccoli in the steamer with water and put the lid on it mid-afternoon. Pre-cooking foods such as chicken, salmon, or any type of grain can mean that you can whip together a meal by re-heating it, adding a sauce or seasoning, and steaming a fresh veggie. If your children regularly have melt-downs before meals, move your mealtime half an hour earlier, or have a snack an hour to 90 minutes before dinner. I usually feed children every two hours while they’re awake; that way if they don’t eat much at one meal, it’s not a disaster.

-Likewise, you can calm some of the stress of cooking if you make a weekly plan. For example, if Mondays you always have chicken, Tuesdays you always have pasta, Wednesdays you always have quiche, Thursdays are chicken again, and Fridays you always have fish, that can take a lot of the decision-making out of the plan. At Rainbow Bridge we always had the same grains on the same days of the week, and the children loved knowing that it was “rice day” or “millet day.”

-Let your kids help set the table. Kids love knowing where each person’s place is, and knowing what goes where. Consider keeping kid-dishes in a low place so that kids can get them out by themselves, or have some sort of ‘staging area’ (a small play-table or broad stool) that you can put dishes on for them to take to the table. We use woven wooden bowls which are quite cheap, you can get them for $9/dozen online, here. Kids who are too little to reach the top of the table can put a napkin on each chair.

-Get EVERYTHING ready before you call the children for the meal. This means every bib, every spoon, the wet cloths for wiping up at the end. If the food it hot, serve it up in dishes and keep them on the counter BEFORE calling the children. Once you call children to come to the table, things should flow smoothly through your rituals till the food is sitting in front of them.

-Use a song to bring them to the table. Songs are great for transitions like this, because there’s no discussion, there’s no convincing, there’s just this sweet song and everyone knows what it means. At Rainbow Bridge, we wash hands after sitting down at the table, but there are many ways to do handwashing (ask if you want more ideas on handwashing).

-Saying/singing a blessing. I love to start the meal with a blessing, because it’s nice to have gratitude built into our day, and it’s a nice signal to start the meal. This can involve lighting a candle, or not (I love candles), and I highly recommend having hand-motions to go along with it, that your children can do as well. Kids want to be in motion, and that way they’re doing appropriate motions!



-One of the surest ways to make mealtimes UNenjoyable is to get into power struggles over eating. Don’t do it! Your job is to put healthy food choices in front of your children; they decide whether to eat it. You can’t eat it for them, and getting mad at them usually only causes them to dig in their heels, making them LESS likely to develop healthy eating patterns, which of course is what we want. I wrote a blog post about picky eaters; if you haven’t read it yet, check it out at

-Another technique for picky eaters I’ve used with success is this: I’ll give a medium portion of the food a child likes (say, rice), along with a very small portion of the food she is learning to like (say, broccoli). Then I’ll tell her that she needs to finish everything in her bowl before she can get more. Some children are very disappointed at this, and will say, “But I don’t want to eat that.” I’ll calmly reply, “That’s OK. You don’t have to eat the broccoli.” “But I want more rice.” “Oh. Then you’ll need to eat everything in your bowl.” Children who are new will be very disappointed, but usually after a couple of meals (when they realize I’m serious), they will start eating the broccoli in order to get more rice. Research has shown that people’s tastes for foods change upon repeated eatings, so they really ARE ‘learning to like it’ as they eat little bits. I will be compassionate for children as they are disappointed that they don’t get what they want; just because I’m not giving in doesn’t mean I have to be mean about it.

-Kids throwing food: with very young children, give them very small servings, and teach them to say, “more please!” That way, when they’re done they’re less likely to throw food all over the place. With slightly older children, I will say, “I’ll keep your bowl by me until you’re ready to eat from it.” And older than that, I’ll simply say, “I see that you’re all done eating.” If they want it back, it depends on the child’s age and abilities. Sometimes I’ll ask, “Are you ready just to eat this food?” But sometimes I’ll say, “No, you’ll have another chance to eat again at snack time.”

More sources for finger games:

A fabulous resource for songs, rhymes and finger games is the book/cd set “Sing a Song with Baby,” by Mary Schunnemann, .

Another good source for finger plays is this reprint of “Finger Plays for Nursery and Kindergarten” by Emily Poulson. Don’t feel like you have to learn them all, just pick one and do it till you’re sick of it! My favorites are V. “The Pigs,” and IX. “The Mice.”

Here’s another source for finger plays:

Here’s the original of the one you see me do a modified version of in the video:

“Here is the Father, short and stout. Here is the Mother with her children all about. Here is the Brother, as tall as can be. Here is the Sister with a dolly on her knee. Here is the Baby, yet to grow. Here is the Finger family, all in a row.”


It’s important to end on a good strong note, if you can! I wrote a blog post on ending meals, check it out here:

-If you’re going to let your children leave the table as they’re finished eating, will you have them ask whether they can be excused?  This could be a good opportunity to say, “Two more bites of potatoes.”  If you take bites together, this can help kids take those extra bites.  Prepare your fork and look at your child expectantly, then only raise it to your lips as they raise theirs.  Once they do leave the table, what do they do while everyone else is still eating?  One thing I’ve done is that when a child is finished eating he can choose a book and sit on the couch to read it  while others are finishing up; this really helps those who are still eating from getting too distracted by children playing nearby.  When I was young, after we were excused we could go play in the living room while the adults lingered over their meal.  If we wanted to come back and interact with them we could, but we had to sit back down at the table (but eating was done; we’d already taken our plates).  Once everyone was finished eating, the children were all called back and we’d all clean up together.

-If you don’t have a dishwasher, consider putting dirty dishes in a dish-tub under the sink.  This keeps kitchen counters clean and clear until you have time to wash the dishes.  (And after all, isn’t that a big part of what a dishwasher does: store dirty dishes out of sight until it’s time to wash them?  Just a thought…)


Springtime at Rainbow Bridge



  1. Debbie Raygada says

    Great Ideas and tips for mealtime. I have used stories made up or from a book during dinner time and my son stays very interested and usually eats well. There are some new foods I want him to try so i will try to incorporate the recommendations form this reading.,
    thank you Miss Faith.

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