Communicating & Connecting During Meal Times

Maintaining a daily routine is crucial during this time of uncertainty. One way to maintain consistency at home is through interactions during meals. Mealtimes provide a variety of learning opportunities for young children and foster continued social interaction for families as a whole. Children can learn vocal playand turn-taking through communication and reciprocal social interaction. Family members’ spoken words expose children to language. There are endless opportunities to communicate with one anotherduring mealtime! While connecting and communicating around meals looks different for children of different ages,

Here is a quick review of some important terms.

  • Receptive language -the understanding ofspoken or written words and messages.
  • Expressive language -speaking or using body language to convey wants, needs, or ideas.
  • Speech is a mode of expressing language and usually associated with spoken sounds in babbling, words, phrases, and sentences.

Here are a few pointers caregivers can try during mealtime...

  • Maintain a consistent mealtime routine witheveryone eatingtogether at the same table.This routine will give your children a sense of security and stability and understand everyday events. Conversing at the dinner table will teach them social skills (such as taking turns or staying on topic). It will also help with receptive and expressive language as well as speech.
  • Limit technology use at the table (no television, phones, tablets during meals). This will give your children the opportunity to engage with everyone at the tableandhelp them learnsocial skills, receptive and expressive language, and speech.
  • Encourage communication at the table, including feelings and intention (e.g.,“all done, “no more”). By encouraging communication, your child has the opportunity to practice expressive language skills, which will come in handy when they communicate with others.
  • Comment on the foods youare eating (“I have three pieces of broccoli,” “Carrots are orange, peas are green.”, etc.)Comments help children better understand their environment, while also providing a template for expressive language (e.g.,putting words and sentences together in their heads) and speech (saying them aloud).
  • Target listening skills by includingyour child inpre-meal preparation. They canhelp put placemats on the table or find the silverware needed. Listening skills are important for receptive language, as a child cannot understand a spoken message if they did not hear the spoken message.
  • Narrate what you and your children are doing (e.g..“It’s time to eat!” “Let’s make your bottle!” “We have to cut the banana!”). Thisprovides children with receptive language, expressive language, and speech models. It also gives children a sense of stability and understanding of everyday events.
  • Facilitate expressive language using a communication board. A communication board is a form of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). This might be a grid with pictures and captions with different food options (e.g.,apples, chips) or different statements (e.g. “more,” “done”). This is especially useful if your child has difficulty with speech production. A communication board will still allow children to express themselves.
  • Use a visual schedule with pictures of familiar items from the home environment to facilitate routines and assist with following directions before and during the meal (e.g.
    pre-meal routine: washing hands, setting the table). Like routines, a visual schedule gives children a sense of stability throughout the day and understanding of daily events.
  • Expand your child’s languageby adding words onto what they say (e.g.,when your child says “More” you say“I want more oatmeal please”). Expanding language is another way to give your children templates for speech and expressive language.

Children can...

  • Express feelings and intention (e.g. “all done,” “no more”), allowing them to practice their expressive language skills. If these expressions are spoken, then the child can also practice speech production
  • Request missing items or favorite foods, which are also opportunities for expressive language and speech production.
  • Assist with setting the table, which can be a part of the routine, especially for older children.

 We hope this guidance helps until we can see each other again. Please stay safe!

Gabrielle Larrea, MA, CCC-SLP | Natalie Mikkelson, MA, CCC-SLP | Teresa Anthony, MA, CCC-SLP | Natalie Stasch, BS | Isabel Villarta, BA

References and Suggested Resources:

American Speech-Language Hearing Association: Social Language Development:

American Speech-Language Hearing Association: Augmentative and Alternative Communication:

Low-Tech Strategies for Facilitating Mealtime Communication: 

LSL Teaching Strategies And Techniques: