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Family eating a meal and laughing


Family mealtimes are a great way to reinforce communication skills and promote early literacy and good behavior with your child. Read on to learn how to with some simple activities designed to encourage language, problem solving, good habits.

Make a mealtime routine

How many times a week does your family eat together? Do you eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner together? Plan to eat one meal each day together as a family.

Remember to record your routine (e.g. Which meal: B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner) in your daily planner, and then write down which specific activities you tried each day. Which ones are working for your child, and which ones aren’t? You will learn what works for you and your child by reading what you write down, and repeating the activities that work.

Activities that encourage language

Activity 1

How was your day?

Take turns giving each person at the table a chance to tell about their day. When you share your day, you are being a model for your child. Let your child go first some days, and be sure each family member gets to tell their story.

“Dad, tell us everything that happened since you woke up.”
“Now it’s __’s turn.”

Activity 2

Ask a few questions about what your child talks about. Ask for more details or how he feels about something.

“You went to the park?”
“What did you do?”
“Who else was there?”

Activity 3

Family problem solving is a great activity to tie into mealtime. Share ideas about decisions that affect the whole family, such as menu ideas, good bedtimes for children, and TV shows to watch. This is a great time for handling issues where parents might not agree, so that your child hears a healthy discussion and joint decisions.

“We tried letting you stay up until 8 o’clock, but you have been tired each night at dinner. What do you think we should do so you’re not so tired?”

Activity 4

Getting food on the table. Let your child help cook the meal, or help plan parts of the meal. Try to find ways your child can help you during this busy time. Let your child put forks on the table, or fold napkins. Let your child think of other things you need to put on the table, like ketchup or milk.

“How many rolls should we put in the basket for dinner?”
“Can you help toss the salad?”
“Good job!”

Activity 5

Making requests.

Making requests is a life-long skill. Encourage your child to make requests in a polite manner. This is a good time to practice please and thank you. Model saying “would you like more potatoes?”, then ask your child to offer something to you. Role play making requests in nice ways and not nice ways, just for fun.

“Does this sound nice … gimme potatoes. Or does this sound nice… please pass the potatoes.”

Activity 6

Laugh together. Children start to develop humor before they can talk. Humor is another important life long social skill. Have family joke time at the table, and help your child be involved. Young children love to be silly and make up jokes. Teach your child a simple “knock, knock” joke to share with others.

“Did anybody have anything funny happen today to share with us?”
“Any jokes?” Knock Knock, who’s there
Lettuce. Lettuce who?
Lettuce us in, it’s cold out here.

Activity 7

Think of something nice your child did today.

Say nice things about what your child did well today in front of the family. This doesn’t mean that your child might not have had some bad times in the day. But dinnertime can be a time for each person to feel special, so try to remember a good thing about the day.

“(Mary) played so nicely with Tommy today. She shared her toys and helped serve. snacks.”

Activity 8

Eating problems?

Read a book about fussy eaters. Your librarian would have some good suggestions. Talk about what goes on in the story, and gently relate it to problems you may have at mealtime. (See also some suggestions in the behavior section below.)

Ways to encourage good behavior

Activity 9

An ounce of prevention.

Think about your rules. Do your children have to stay at the table until they are done, or until everyone is done, or until they ask to be excused? Can they say “no thank you” to any of the foods offered? We don’t want to tell you which rules to have, but have rules that are appropriate for the age of your child and keep them the same every day.

Activity 10

Teach how to say “no thank you”. Is your child a picky eater? Small children are notorious for loving something one week, and hating it the next. Parents can find can hard to “go with the flow”. As long as you know your child is not starving (watch for weight loss), it’s probably OK not to eat everything. This would be a good time to teach how to say “no thank you”.

Activity 11

Give choices. If eating a variety of foods is a problem, allow your child to choose either this or that food. Perhaps a small taste of new foods might do. Allowing your child to make choices is an important step toward development of a healthy self esteem.

Activity 12

Your words must count. If you say “no dessert”, keep to that…

Activity 13

Offer a snack before bed. Small children have small stomachs and can get hungry before bedtime. Offer cereal or a piece of bread or a piece of fruit.

Activity 14

Tantrum? Make a simple request that your child show good manners. Use a neutral but firm voice. If he doesn’t quiet immediately, move your child to time-out. Your child may rejoin the family when he/she stops the upsetting behavior. (See the Tantrums and Time-outs section at the back of the book for more ideas.)


Friends for breakfast

Let your child bring a stuffed animal to the table. Pretend that the stuffed animal doesn’t like some food, but after some persuasion, learns to try a bit. Have the stuffed animal ask your child if he would like to try a bite too.

Family outing

The next time you go to the store, let your child help make the grocery list. Also tell your child he will get to pick out a special fruit or vegetable. Name the various fruits and vegetables as you look at them in the store. Let your child pick out one and everyone must try at least one bite of it for dinner. Make a game of it, and have your child ask each family member if he likes it a little or a lot.


Choose the restaurant carefully if you are taking your child, especially how long he/she will have to wait for the meal. Bring crackers in case there is a long wait. Bring quiet activities, such as crayons and a coloring book. Bring paper and pencil and teach your child to make rubbings on coins from your wallet. You know your child. If your child finds it hard to sit for a long time at a restaurant, stick to fast food places.

From “Get Ready for School: Family-Centered Activities to Promote Early Literacy and Appropriate Behavior,” 2002.

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