Every time that I've seen a meal in process at my daughter's preschool, I'm amazed. 12 little kids all sitting down and eating the same exact foods, with very minimal fussing—if any. How do they do it?! I've been watching for a while now and I have a few tips to share today that I think might be helpful for many of us to try at home.
1. Always have a few components in any meal.
Snacks are typically two items and lunches are usually 3-4, but they are easy sides that provide safety nets for the kids without creating much extra work for the staff. So a lunch might be burritos, sliced peaches, and milk. Or spaghetti, green beans, clementines, and water. The goal is that there is at least something every child will like—even if they don't like the main dish. This is exactly why we almost always have 1-2 sides with our family dinners, even if it's just a plate of sliced fruit!
2. Institute a routine.
I think that the familiarity and predictability of the daily routine and rituals around each meal go a long way to make the kids feel at ease when the food actually shows up. I know this is easier at a facility than it is at home, but even having a small routine can help. Have the kiddo help you set the table, sing a little song, then eat. Or wash hands, choose a drink, say a prayer, then eat. Even a small routine primes their brains to know what's coming next if it's done consistently.
3. Interact with your kids during the meal.
I know that it can be tempting to multitask during meals, so I love how my daughter's teachers either sit right with the kids and eat too, or they engage them in conversation as they are helping others with additional servings, napkins, or drink refills. The kids know that the teachers are paying attention and that they aren't doing anything else—which I think helps to keep most behavior in check.
4. Have a master list of meals and snacks.
Our daycare rotates through a 5 week calendar of meals and most of those meals appear regularly (though not twice in one week). This helps the different foods to be familiar and to feel comfortable, even if they aren't things that are typically eaten when the child is at home. It might help you to write up a list of all of the meals that your family likes so you have something to consult when you are deciding what's for dinner, then serve those meals regularly. I think we often feel like we have to make meals that are new and exciting, but the truth is, familiarity is a nice thing too. (And it's easy to make small variations in regular meals to avoid literally eating the same dinners all the time.)
5. Don't worry too much if a child doesn't eat a particular food.
Since there are two snacks and lunch in my daughter's day, there are plenty of times for the kids to refuel—which means that it's not too big of a deal if a child doesn't eat the main course one day and just eats the veggie and fruit sides for lunch. (This happens with my daughter on the days when they have casseroles!) So at home, try not to stress out completely if your child doesn't eat as much at any one meal since there will always be an opportunity for them to eat again soon!
I feel incredibly fortunate that we have such a great place to send our daughter each day, and that I don't have to worry about her being fed nutritious foods—they don't serve classic kid foods too often and there are no desserts or juice. I know that this is not always the case (as parents, we usually don't have any control over the food that's being served) so if you have a particular challenge or concern with daycare food, post it in the comments or chime in over in the Yummy Toddler Food Facebook group and we'll see if we can get you some help! (I packed lunch for a year before we switched daycares so I know how challenging that is too.)
For more feeding advice, check out my new ebook, Feeding Toddlers 101. It's a super easy to read collection of feeding advice that will help you feel less stress at the table, get your toddler to try new foods, and troubleshoot common mealtime mishaps.