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Family Style Meals 101

Serving family style meals is a great way to connect around the dinner table, ease the intensity of dinner service, and best of all, allow your child to build skills and autonomy with eating.

When I was growing up, my mother served our dinner family style. We would 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 by picking up 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 served himself.

You can imagine how efficient we were with getting 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.

In this article, you’ll learn the basics of family-style meal service, including:

  • The benefits of family style dinner
  • How family style dining builds autonomy with eating in kids
  • How to put them into practice with younger children
  • Why pre-plating is something you need to release — now!
  • The shift you’ll see with family style eating
  • And, frequently asked questions

Let’s get started!

Children sitting around the table eating. Family style meals in action.

The Benefits of a Family Style Dinner

Serving food family style can take place at any meal, but it’s common to see this approach used at dinner time. As a pediatric dietitian, I like family-style meal service for several reasons:

  • It provides young children with opportunities to hone their motor skills, such as balance, passing platters, holding bowls and scooping food, for example.
  • Kids have an opportunity to learn and practice their table manners, such as ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and other courtesies. They also learn to wait for others, so they learn patience.
  • It creates an opportunity for kids to choose which foods to eat and the amount they feel comfortable having on their plate. (No over-serving by well-intentioned parents!)
  • Parents have the opportunity to acknowledge their child’s capabilities, such as being able to handle food and serve himself. This supports trust in the relationship between parent and child.

How Family Style Food Honors Child Autonomy

Serving meals family style is a positive way to implement the Love with Limits Feeding Style and Satter’s Division of Responsibility with Feeding.

How is that?

Serving meals this way allows your child to determine how much she will eat at mealtime, whether she will eat at all, and supports her individual food preferences and eating style.

Family style meals can also expose children to new foods in a natural and relaxed way.

And, when you get your feeding style in the right place, it compliments your whole strategy for raising a healthy child.

When food items are passed around the table (we pass to the right at our house, too), all food options get handed around and each child holds, looks at, and smells all the individual foods on the table.

Even if your picky eater snubs broccoli, she still needs to be polite and pass it around!

A table set for family style dinner

Family Style Dining for Young Children

I’m often asked whether families can begin family style eating with younger children. The good news is you can!

Young toddlers can gradually ease into family style eating and begin to practice at the table with your support.

In fact, it’s a good idea to begin allowing toddlers to have more independence and a voice in what and how much they eat.

For children under the age of three to four years, you can hold the platters and bowls and walk around behind them, asking if they would like some of this or that food, and have them indicate how much food they want on their plate. Then, you place it on their plate for them.

Around age four (or possibly younger), your preschooler will probably be able to manipulate the serving utensil while you hold the bowl or platter of food. She can scoop food onto her plate independently.

By age five years, many kids will be able to serve themselves and pass food independently. Of course, if your child needs help, support him.

Are You Pre-Plating Food? 

Many parents pre-plate their kid’s food. They dish up food onto the plate, selecting the food items and the amounts for their child to eat.

Often, this practice is a habit, without much thought given to the long term implications.

While some kids are fine with someone else in charge of their meal selections, other kids may not be.

Pre-plating food may feel controlling or restrictive, leading kids to react in ways that are counter-productive to their health (like overeating).

For example, a child who receives a plate full of food will be expected to eat it. This can lead to parents overly pressuring the child to eat, or bribing them to finish their meal with dessert afterward.

Another scenario is the when the child complies with parental requests and eats the full plate of food, when perhaps they weren’t hungry.

Neither scenario is good for the child, nor does it help him learn to listen to his body’s appetite cues.

Pre-plating may also overshoot kid portion-sizes, according to research.

Long ago, I was a mom who pre-plated food for my kids. I changed my approach to family meals over a decade ago, and I’ve never looked back.

While we’ve had other drama at the meal table (what family doesn’t?!), we haven’t fought about food or eating. I credit family style meals for this.

The Amazing Shift with Family Style Eating 

As a nutrition professional, I’ve seen many families make the switch to family style eating.

In fact, I encourage all parents to try family style meals and see how their kids react.

Many tell me that their kids eat better and mealtime is much more relaxed—even enjoyable!

Often, this is due to a subtle shift in control from the parent to the child. When kids get to be in charge of their plate and what goes on it, the drama at the meal table dissipates.

FAQ: Family Meals with Family-Style Food

Here are some of the most common questions I get asked about family-style meals:

What if My Kid Eats Too Much?

Some parents worry their child will be out of control with their eating, taking large amounts of food.

For example, parents have said to me, “My child would eat all of the pasta (or potatoes, bread, etc) if I let him serve himself!”

My experience has been that kids do love the freedom of serving themselves. And in the beginning stages of implementing family style dinner, some kids can get carried away, but this passes as they get used to this style of meal service.

Eventually, kids relax about food at meal time, as long as there isn’t too much pressure or other negative feeding practices being used to get them to eat.

Remember, starting family style meals is a new skill and a learning process.

Kids don’t know how much to eat, but can learn a lot about their appetite and regulating it through family style eating.

What If My Kid Won’t Eat Enough?

The opposite concern is that a child won’t eat all the foods on the table, or won’t eat enough food at mealtime.

For example, a child may only put bread and butter on his plate, and drink a glass of milk.

Many parents would have a big concern about this, fearing their child will be up in the middle of the night, or asking for snacks before bedtime.

Again, my experience is that this may happen in the early stages of shifting to family style dinners.

If it does happen, I encourage you to stay on track with your eating schedule throughout the day, set boundaries like “The Kitchen is Closed Right Now,” and always remember to serve one or two items on the table you know your child will eat.

Family-Style Meals 101

Balanced Meals and Family Style Service

The content of the meal is where you can optimize nutrition. Offer as many food groups as possible on the table and make the health quality of the meal a priority.

For example, if you’re 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 if you need more guidance, use this smart strategy for your meal planning.

The Nourished Child website and nutrition school for parents

Try Family Style Dining Today

Family style meals have many benefits for children, including healthier eating, appetite awareness, learning positive social skills, and negotiating nutrition in meaningful ways.

Try it—your family may like it! I think it’s an essential component to really raising a healthy eater.

Are family-style meals already part of your mealtime process? Share your experiences below.

Want to improve your family meals? Take my workshop, Eat in Peace!

This post was updated in January, 2021.

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  1. This is a very interesting idea! I’ve never thought about it before. My son isn’t picky, but I’ll try it at home just to see what happens. Honestly, my first concern that popped up when I was reading was “Won’t I have more dishes to clean?”!! Any tips for this? (We try to be “green” as well as healthy.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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. 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!

    1. 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.

  5. 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!