Meal Time Routines and Learning

TulipTreeElm House Blog4 Comments

Co-written by Megan and Mage

In this blog, Megan and Mage will describe what meal time routines and learning around eating typically look like at Elm House.


Meal times at Elm House are some of our most important. most messy, sweetest and connected times during the day for learning within a group setting. Our Elm House “elders” as, we like to refer to those children who have been with us for more than a year, are very familiar with the routines at meal times. And although most of the children in the older cohorts are within in year of each other age wise, they are all learning at different paces, which is highlighted at times when we all gather together. The older one’s help the younger one’s by just being at the table using the skills that they have, while the younger children observe, try things out and absorb information. We let the children practice skills such as feeding themselves, drinking out of an open cup and using utensils, that build their independence, thus boost their self esteem and help them experience caring for their own bodies.

We serve our meals “family style” that is, the food comes out in big bowls on tray and the teacher talks their way through serving each child individually. We serve a small portion of food at a time, talking about each food as we serve it. We love to classify each food too, is it a fruit or a vegetable? Was it roasted or steamed? We notice the color and texture of the foods.  We notice the quality, is it sweet or sour? For such sensorial learners, these qualifications or classifications of food, are helping them make all kinds of language/linguistic connections.  I think this way of serving food promotes a real love of the food, of the cooking process and gives us time to think about of how thankful we are to have such high quality meals.  We always talk with the children about who made lunch and may even dive into a story about how this food grows, or what animal a food comes from. We always and forever are looking for connection between the outside natural world (our school garden included). Teachers sit along side children to eat and drink down at their level. We try as much as possible to let the children try the foods on their own terms, with their own style of eating-though always encouraging an exploratory bite or offering a utensil to eat with.

We all sit together eating until everyone is done, which is a great way to help toddlers develop patience. Even our newest toddlers now are accustomed to sitting at the table for 20-30 minutes, even if they are done eating! What an accomplishment for the beginning of the school year. After everyone is done the children one by one get up, dump their food scraps into a compost bucket and clear their dishes to a tray placed on the floor. They practice wiping their faces with a small wash cloth, some even using a mirror to check if they’ve got everything cleaned up. There is so much value in all of these tasks-these are opportunities for toddlers to assert themselves in moving towards independence.  So much of a toddlers learning is all areas is based around the thought of adults “helping me to help myself (and then eventually others!).  It also shows the ideal of helpfulness that we are so trying to conjure on a daily basis with the children in our care. It’s also promoting responsibility and with that self care. Not to mention so many opportunities for coordination-walking to the tray with a bowl is a challenge for some! But if there is one thing we know about toddlers-they enjoy the challenge, there is learning built into experience challenge and in they really, genuinely love these activities.  We love meal times with your children!




In the Nest, most of the children have just turned one, and so some of the meal time routines look different. Whereas the older children will all scrape their food into the compost bucket, put their dishes on the tray, and assist with wiping their own hands and faces, the youngest children at Elm House participate in clean-up differently. Those who are not walking yet (all of the Nest cohort other than ML), will instead hand their dishes to the teacher (generally either me or Manuela). Then the teacher describes what is happening with the dishes.

“May I have your plate? This one is your plate. Could you put that in my hand? Thank you. I will scrape the food into this bucket here. Then I will put the plate on the tray. Now I need your cup. Could you put that cup in my hand?” 

This accomplishes at least a few things that I can think of:
a) The children acknowledge that they’ve chosen to end the meal.
b) The children participate in cleaning up their dishes.
c) The children become accustomed to the routine through repetition, and so when they learn to walk, they will have an easier transition to putting their own dishes away.

There is also some difference in how the children eat in the Nest. All of the children receive open cups and utensils to use independently, across the school. However, some of the children in the Nest are still building co-ordination skills. A teacher is available to offer some assistance with utensils or cups if a child appears to be struggling or requests help.

“You want to drink milk. I see you turned the cup over and the milk spilled out. Here, let’s hold the cup with both hands, and lift the cup to your mouth. Now the milk is at your mouth and you can drink!”

Overall, the children are free to explore their food and utensils. Spills happen, and it’s all part of the exciting learning process.

What are some things you are surprised or curious to see about our meal time routines? What things do/could you incorporate at home? What are your child’s favorite meals at home?


4 Comments on “Meal Time Routines and Learning”

  1. Thank you so much for all these details! I have noticed a difference ever since I started explaining more about the food as I serve it to Til. She is more interested in trying everything rather than being most interested in the foods she recognizes.

  2. I agree with Carrie! Also I’ve noticed how FD now really wants to feed herself and take a long time to eat – it’s often a relatively calm and quiet meal when we give her utensils and autonomy over her mealtime. She’s very excited about forks and spoons these days!

  3. Great to know about this input the kids are getting so we can build on it at home. RT is slow eater, typically asking for several books to be read to him while he munches. Sometimes we oblige and sometimes we’re eating ourselves to we practice conversation instead.

  4. Those are some awesome tips and thank you for sharing! I want to ask what do you do with slow eaters? Is food taken away after designated meal time is over even if the child haven’t finish? My 21 month old daughter plays with her food and never finishes her food after ah hour at the table.

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