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Real-Time Meal Strategy (RTS) for Families with Children

Teaching kids to set the table is a clever way to delegate getting a meal ready in time as a team. Some days you might not feel inspired to have children at your side helping you cook. I can remember the days when I was feeling stretched thin, tired, crispy so to speak. Those are the days when I wasn’t feeling up to an energy level sufficient to patiently teach a child how to help with the cooking and food prep. Kids can learn they are part of the process of having a meal. The sooner that idea gets planted the better!

Here’s some suggestions on teaching children how to set the table while keeping it fun:

1. The most important step is the last one. Be sure to pay a compliment to the child(ren) who did the table-setting job in front of others at mealtime. That goes a long way toward encouraging kids to ask to set the table again!

2. As a gift for extended family or for your own family’s daily use, get some napkin rings that are unique in some way for each family member. As a child, I hand-painted some seasonal ones for my grandparents. My mom varnished them to seal the paint layer. We also had bought wooden rings with distinct shapes so it was easy to tell whose napkin it was.

3. The reason I suggest napkin rings is to encourage your family to consider using cloth napkins, especially ones made of organic fibers (cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo). It was a revelation to me to learn that repeated washing and drying of synthetic fiber cloth (rayon, polyester, etc) is contributing to the microplastics harmful to our water supply and environment. I think cloth napkins still beat paper in terms of carbon footprint. Sure, there’s lots of washing and drying as opposed to throwing away paper. You can read more about this from the articles I cite below.

4. Teach your child how to fold napkins. There’s many ways to do this:

  • If you don’t want to fool with cloth, it’s okay. The upside is that you’re eating around a table together with no screens as distraction. I think that might be a huge factor in keeping our family cohesive on a daily basis. It’s still a good idea to teach the folding in half, lining up the corners. Then placing it beneath the fork and spoon to the left of the plate.

  • Teach them some simple origami folds for napkins (Emperor hat origami was my favorite as a kid)

  • Roll napkins into a tube that will slide into the napkin rings

5. You might get some eye-rolling and groans but eventually it’s a good idea to introduce utensil placement. If my memory is correct, you have forks and spoons to the left of the plate. Knives blade facing the plate to the left. Glasses are situated on the knife side. Sure there’s butter knives and salad forks for some…if you want that, go for it! This is a nice study in geometry too. I am an artist type who doesn’t care much for crisp corners and straight lines. But there’s a certain feeling of satisfaction when I sit down to a place setting where the utensils are parallel and set precisely near a plate.

6. Additional step for special occasions: For special occasions, use some cardstock scrap and let your child(ren) make place names for seating. My parents loved our son Sam’s cartoon pictures with his early cursive handwriting so they tucked them away to save for future gatherings.

Check out the Just for Kid’s page for a related coloring page and activity.

CNN article regarding paper towel alternative:

Vox article on paper napkin background:

Microplastics from synthetic fibers

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