Benefits & Basics of Family-Style Meals

When I was growing up, my mother served our meals “family-style.” We would do the nightly set the table with plates, glasses and silverware, and my mother would place our meal components in the center of the table. My father would start with the entrée, serve himself, and pass the platter to the next person on his right. This went on until all items had been passed around to each person and everyone had food—you can imagine how efficient we were with getting the food around the table, especially when we were hungry! This was effective for my family then, and I use it with my own kids now.

I like family-style meals for several reasons:

  • Kids are able to learn and practice their table manners, such as please, thank you, and other courtesies, as well as patience.
  • It creates an opportunity for kids to choose which foods to eat and the amount which works for their body.
  • Independence and trust are promoted in subtle ways, such as acknowledging your child’s capability with serving himself and allowing your child to choose foods and amounts that are right for him/her.

Family-style meals honor the Division of Responsibility with Feeding. They allow your child to choose whether and how much she will eat at mealtime, and appreciate the individual preferences and eating style of your child.

Family-style meals can also enhance exposure to new foods in a natural and relaxed way. When food items are passed around the table (we pass to the right at our house too), all options get handed around, and each child holds, looks at, and smells all the individual foods at the table. So even if your picky eater snubs the broccoli, she still needs to be polite and pass it around, exposing herself to broccoli in the meantime.

Young toddlers can begin to practice the family-style meal at the family table with you. It’s appropriate to allow your toddler more independence and say in what and how much she eats. For children under the age of 5 years, parents can hold the platters and bowls for their child and walk around behind them, asking if they would like some of such and such, and how much. By age 5, many kids can be independent with family-style meals.

Many parents are “platers.” They serve up their child’s meal on a plate, selecting the food items and the amounts for their child to eat. Often, this practice is a habit, and without much thought for the long term effects. While some kids are OK with someone else in charge of their meal selections, other kids may not be. Plating may feel controlling or restrictive and lead kids to react in ways that are counter-productive to their health (like overeating). “Plating” may also overshoot kid portion-sizes. You might like to read about my experience with plating!

I encourage parents to try family-style meals and see how their kids react. Many families tell me that their kids eat better and mealtime is more relaxed—even enjoyable! That may be due to the shift in control from the parent to the child, diffusing the drama at the meal table.

Other parents are worried that their child will be out of control with their eating. My experience has been that kids do love the freedom and can get carried away initially, but this passes as the child gets used to the style, relaxes about getting enough to eat and tunes into their own hunger.

A word about balanced meals: this is where parents can optimize nutrition! Offer as many food groups as possible on the table and make the health quality a priority. For example, if your serving fried chicken, make sure to balance that with a vegetable, a whole grain, fruit and low-fat milk or milk substitute. All foods fit, but be strategic in your meal planning.

For all the reasons noted above, children may eat better and healthier, learn positive social skills, and negotiate nutrition in meaningful ways with the family-style approach.

Try it—your family may like it! Already part of your family mealtime? Share your experiences…

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  1. says

    Great post Jill! I love the attractive pictures of your dinner table (jealous!). We do this half the time….it’s still hard to get my 2-year old to pass around food. My 4-year old loves it though!

  2. says

    The only reason I don’t do this at the moment, unless we’re having taco night or something of that nature, is that I have trouble not picking off plates in the middle of the table, if everything is laid out like that. I keep things in the kitchen so I’m not eating too much. It’s a great idea, though, and it takes things back to the way we used to eat: as a family and around the table, together!

    • Jill says

      It’s hard to know what’s best, especially if you are trying to regulate your own eating. However, kids are born with a pure and “in tune” ability to self-regulate–something that many adults are working hard to reclaim. You can learn a lot from watching your kids self-regulate.

  3. J.C. says

    I’d really like to try this, but I’m afraid that our uber-picky 5y/o son would serve himself several servings worth of pasta or rice but refuse to even put the veggies or other ‘healthier’ foods on his plate. If I pre-plate the food with at least a bite or 2 of veggies to start with, every now & then he’ll try them since they’re there, but don’t think he’d do that if they weren’t automatically in front of him. What’s your solution if the child just wants to keep filling up on carbs & refuses the veggies? We’re at a loss.

    • Jill says

      Uber-picky eater still needs the exposure to new foods (even if he doesn’t eat them) and this is a great way to achieve exposure. And remember, what is eaten at one meal does not determine the success of the day–look at the overall intake during the course of the week. When I treat what I call extreme pickiness, this is one way that naturally exposes children to new foods (whether they eat them or not) and is a low pressure approach than making kids take a bite or offering a reward if they do. Offer veggies as a snack with a dip. Or don’t worry about veggies if uber-picky eater eats fruit (the nutrients match up mostly). Or request a “bite to be polite” and make it about manners rather than the nutritional quality of veggies (or any other food). Forget the fear!

  4. shelby says

    Tried this meal format after reading this post. It was not a fancy meal: roasted chicken in one bowl and steamed broccoli in the other. Something amazing happened at the end of the meal. My youngest daughter cleared all of our plates. It was a heartwarming show of gratitude and respect.

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