What is Family Style Dining?

Family style dining is a widely recommended practice for feeding children in childcare National child care standards such as the Institute of Medicine, USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program and Head Start Performance Standards recommend that childcare providers serve meals family style for children between ages 2-5 years.1-4 During family style dining, providers sit and eat meals together with children and children select their own portions and serve themselves.

What is Ecological Approach To (EAT) family style dining?

In addition to family style meal service, the national childcare standards also recommend that providers practice responsive feeding.1-4 EAT Family Style is an Ecological Approach To Family style dining that provides holistic training for childcare providers for meeting the recommendations for feeding young children (2-5years). This ecological approach is focused on childcare providers, young children and their families, and the childcare environment.

logo for EAT lessons with mom stirring salad with 2 children

Author: Dipti Dev
Child Health Behaviors Extension Specialist
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

EAT Resources

EAT Practice Wheel with the 7 lessons listed with images for each

The EAT Family Style Dining Curriculum

The EAT Curriculum includes 7 interactive, online lessons, each lesson takes approximately 1-2 hours to complete. Throughout the lessons, you will watch short videos and practice easy strategies to empower yourself to practice family style dining and transform your mealtime to be the most enjoyable part of the day!

All of the EAT Family Style Dining Lessons are developed based on the following national recommendations for childcare providers for feeding young children:1-4

teacher giving praise

Providers model healthy eating

  • Sit and eat the same foods as the children
  • Gently encourage children to try new foods
teacher giving praise

Providers practice nutrition education

  • Help children learn about food by engaging their senses (smell, touch, taste)
  • Incorporate nutrition education into their daily routines with children through books, posters, hands-on experiences, and mealtime conversations
teacher giving praise

Providers support children’s self-regulation in eating

  • Work with children to understand their feelings of hunger and fullness
  • Respond to children’s cues of hunger and fullness
teacher giving praise

Providers practice family style meal service

  • Children serve themselves
  • Children select their own portion sizes
teacher giving praise

Providers use praise and rewards effectively

  • Praise children for trying new foods and eliminate praise for cleaning their plates
  • Food is not used as a reward
  • Each child is encouraged, but not forced to eat or taste his or her food
teacher giving praise

Providers extend the EAT approach through communication

  • Engage families about the nutrition education that takes place in the child care program
  • Work with families to help ensure foods brought from home meet nutrition guidelines
  • Encourage healthier items for holiday/celebration foods

What are the Advantages of E-A-T Family Style Dining?

Advantages for Children

  • Children try new foods
  • Children eat a variety of foods
  • Children make healthy food choices
  • Children eat based on hunger and fullness
  • Develop long-term healthy eating habits
  • Prevent over-weight and obesity
  • Develop independence, self-esteem and confidence
  • Develop social skills and table manners
  • Develop language and math skills
  • Develop self-help skills and fine motor development

Advantages for Childcare Providers

  • Meet childcare standards and recommendations
  • Pleasant mealtimes
  • Save time when short staffed
  • Ease and Improve communication with parents
  • Free online training with videos, activities, scenarios and resources
  • Research-based and classroom-tested training
  • Receive training credits and certificate
  • Learn strategies to overcome barriers related to implementing family style meal service
  • Learn positive feeding strategies


  1. Institute of Medicine (IOM). Early childhood obesity prevention policies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 2011. Available for free download at
  2. Administration for Children and Families. Head Start Program Performance Standards and other regulations. Updated 20132013.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. Caring For Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care And Education Programs. 3rd edition. STANDARD Meal and snack patterns. Elk grove village, IL: American academy of pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Updated 2011. Accessed 4/6, 2012.
  4. Neelon SEB, Briley ME. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for nutrition in Child Care. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(4):607-615.