Last summer, I had the privilege of spending a couple of weeks at a children’s sleep away camp. While there, I would have loved to set a drone free to record what I observed in the dining room filled with mostly kids aged 7-20 years old. I noted how the kids were eating in a quiet, organized, and civilized group environment and were making nutritious choices all on their own.

Meal Time with Healthy Choices

The dining room had three salad bars set up strategically around the room. The younger kids had cut up vegetables set up in the middle of their tables, so they had access to fresh vegetables but did not have to fight for the salad bar with the older kids.

The hot entrées were portioned on trays for around ten kids. The meals were deconstructed, which allowed kids to choose the type of meal they wanted. As you may know, many kids don’t like their food combined, so this was a great way to give them variety without mixing foods.

As I walked around the dining room, I observed kids choosing wisely and putting a variety of foods on their plates. I saw kids trying new foods and experimenting. I was even shocked when I saw my own child go and get soup. At home, he would never eat soup!

Meal Time Success

Taking my observations and applying them to everyday mealtime is not as difficult as it may seem. Here are some of the main lessons I took away from the summer camp’s dining room:

  • Offer kids a variety of choices from 2-3 food groups
  • Deconstruct meals – especially for younger kids.
  • Let your child make their own meal choices; put food on the table, “family style.”
  • Don’t judge their choices.
  • Let them learn from your behaviour: emulate good choices and variety in your intake and actions.
  • Remember: kids silently watch you.
  • They will not do as they are told, but I can guarantee they will follow your lead.
  • Lead by example.

Adding in limited choices and freedom of selection from those choices allow kids to grow and feel good. It also gives them an opportunity to make healthy choices – and feel proud of those choices.

I was simply amazed that my kids’ plates at camp were filled with variety in food colour and textures. They were experimenting and using their freedom of choice in a non-judgmental environment.

Structured Meal Time

Something else I observed was that meal times at summer camp are a part of a routine. Meals are at the same time every day. They have a predictable and organized structure. Group prayer at the beginning and end give them signals of the time frame.

What does a structured meal time look like?

At summer camp especially, kids like to know what to expect. Their mealtime routine was the following:

  • Prior to the meal they line up
  • Announcements
  • Prayers
  • Meal
  • Music
  • Cleanup
  • Announcements
  • Prayers
  • Free time

Campers were also educated to know that meals are times to eat and share in conversation and are not for lectures. Each meal ended with music, which united the kids, and cleanup was a shared activity. Games were played to see who could stack the main dishes, but everyone participated in the cleanup of their table.

It’s no secret that routine and structure work well for the growing mind, and a similar structure of helping to set the table, engaging in conversation before the meal, and clean up at home can help create a more structured mealtime for the entire family.

In the camp environment, the kids were in control of their food intake. They learned about their hunger signals, they had the freedom to experiment without judgement, and they discovered that mealtime and cleanup could be fun. It was amazing to see this and to see them each make healthy food choices because of it.

The next time you are preparing for meal time, see if you can implement some of the lessons I learned from a summer camp dining room. You may be surprised at your kids’ healthy food choices!

If you need assistance setting up your meal time for success, contact me! I solve all kinds of meal and food challenges. Alternatively, you can book a free 15 minute complimentary call with me to discuss your needs and whether nutritional coaching is for you.

Keren