N U T R I T I O N   A C T I O N

Pass the Peas, Not the Germs: Safe Family-Style Meals

Young children benefit when meals are served family-style. They learn independence, cooperation, how to make decisions, and table manners. Family-style meals also help children develop fine motor, communication, and self-help skills.

Family-style meals offer childcare providers an opportunity to observe and assess many areas of a child’s development in the context of a daily routine. During one meal, you may note everything from one child’s aversion to certain food textures to another child’s challenges with communicating with others at the table.

Safety and Family-style Meal Service

According to the National Food Service Management Institute, family-style meals are best served on child-size tables set with sturdy plates and utensils. Children serve themselves from small containers that are passed around the table and may pour beverages from small pitchers. The family-style meal begins with table setting, extends through the food preparation and self-serve stages, and ends with a cleanup.

One challenge associated with family-style meals in childcare is sanitation. Passing and serving food can produce a potential germ-spreading situation. To keep germ transmission at a minimum during family-style meals, establish routines for washing hands; use effective supervision techniques; define rules for sharing food and setting a table; and institute procedures for cleanup and sanitizing.


Effective handwashing is one of the most important steps in controlling the spread of germs. This is particularly true when children are touching and eating food. Recommendations from Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards state that children and adults should wash their hands in running water that is a comfortable temperature (less than 120°F).

Hands should be lathered with soap, preferably liquid soap, and thoroughly rubbed for at least 20 seconds. After washing, rinse until soap and dirt are removed, and use a disposable paper towel for drying.

Adults should model appropriate handwashing procedures. Ensure that children and adults wash their hands before setting the table or serving food, before eating, and after cleanup.

Sharing and Supervision During Family-style Meals

One of the skills young children learn from family-style meals is to eat their food and leave their neighbor’s food alone. It is ironic that children who adamantly refuse to share toys may happily share food, plates, and utensils. Unfortunately, sharing food at the table also can spread germs and illness.

It takes time and practice for young children to learn to distinguish between “good sharing” with toys and “germ sharing” with food. Use lots of practice, modeling, and gentle reminders to help children understand and establish sharing boundaries at the table.

To keep children (and staff) from becoming overwhelmed, introduce family-style meals gradually if you have not served meals in this fashion before. You might initially serve only one component of the meal family-style, beginning with the component that is easiest to divide. For example, serve bread or rolls and let each child use serving tongs take a portion.

Gradually introduce new serving utensils, such as tongs and large spoons, and demonstrate how to use them. Each time a new step or skill is introduced, demonstrate the correct and safe way to proceed. Encourage practice and skill development by including similar items in pretend play areas. Use “teachable moments” in the dramatic play center to introduce serving and family-style table skills. Adult supervision and reminders will help children remember to avoid “tasting” the play food.

Supervision also is essential to prevent contamination of serving utensils. For example, if a large spoon is used to serve a favorite food, like applesauce, remind children to place it back in the same serving bowl after they have served themselves. Assist children as they develop the necessary skills and strength to serve and pass foods.

Effective supervision is the key to incorporating family-style meals that teach children new skills and prevent the spread of germs. Position yourself to observe and provide assistance as children are serving, passing, and eating food. The Caring for Our Children standards recommend that adults be located at the table with the children or within arms’ reach of the dining table.

Setting a Safe Family-style Table

When children are seated at appropriately-sized dining furniture, they are more comfortable and are better able to manage serving themselves. This results in fewer spills and less chance of cross-contamination. Tables at children’s waist to mid-chest height with chairs that allow children’s feet to rest comfortably on a firm surface while they eat are most comfortable.

Choose tableware with surfaces that are smooth and free of chips or cracks. Paper or plastic tableware should be used only once and then discarded. Styrofoam is not recommended for children less than four years of age because it may present a choking risk (Caring for Our Children). Napkins, paper place mats, or tablecloths that are designed for single use should be used only once.

Washable table linens, such as place mats or tablecloths, should be laundered and sanitized after each meal. All items used in food service, including tableware and utensils, should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized after each meal. Typically, tables are used for other purposes throughout the day, such as art projects; so tables should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized just before and immediately after the meal.

Ending the Meal Safely

There is a high risk for cross-contamination if leftovers are not handled properly after a family-style meal. There is a good chance that foods in serving bowls, platters, and pitchers have been contaminated.

The Caring for Our Children recommendation is that food which has been served (i.e., placed on the table and accessible to the children) should be discarded. Food that has not been served and is not contaminated should be tightly covered, refrigerated immediately, and used within 24 hours.

The final step of the family-style meal is to dispose of garbage to control odors, pests, and contamination. Caring for our Children recommends that meal waste be removed from the kitchen every day and kept in containers out of children’s reach. Garbage containers should be labeled and covered with a fitted lid.

Marna Holland
Parent Educator, Asheville City Schools Preschool, Asheville, NC

Internet Resources

Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, /nrckids.org/CFOC/index.html

Serving Meals Family-Style, Mealtime Memo for Child Care, National Food Service Management Institute/University of Mississippi,

Making Food Healthy and Safe for Children: How to Meet the National Health and Safety Performance Standards, 2nd edition, National Training Institute for Child Care Health Consultants, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Maternal & Child Health, nti.unc.edu/course_files/curriculum/nutrition/making_food_healthy_and_safe.pdf

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