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Pre-Plated Meals vs. Family-Style Meals

April 2019: This post has been updated.

I confess. I was a food plater. I pre-plated meals so my kids had the “right” amount of food and the proper balance at mealtime.

In my early years as a mom, I made healthy meals– selecting, cutting, portioning, plating, pouring and serving all of our family meals to my kids. 

While I didn’t use negative feeding practices like forcing, punishing or bribing my brood to eat, I was definitely deciding what they would eat and how much they would receive.

In other words, I used pre-plated meals as a way to feel in control of my children’s eating.

As such, I wasn’t helping my kids become independent, intuitive or confident with eating. And that was getting in the way of really raising a healthy eater.

Now, I’m happy to report that I’m a reformed pre-plater. I’ve learned a few things along the way about pre-plated meals and I want to share it with you.

Pre-plated meals versus family-style meals

What are Family-Style Meals?

Family-style meals are simply mealtimes where all the food items in the meal are placed in the center of the table. Family members pass items around the table from one to another, selecting food items and serving themselves.

I was a food plater. Yes, a plater of food for my kids. I've changed my ways.

How Family-Style Meals Helped Us

When my four children were 4, 6, 7, and 9 years, I made the switch to family-style meals, and I’ve never looked back.

I’ll never forget my middle daughter’s statement after a week of serving meals our new way,

“Mom, are we going to have a smorgasbord every night?!”

My kids loved it. And despite my later start, they’ve all turned out to be “normal” eaters, at least from my standpoint. 

Of course, they each have their food preferences and their dislikes. Sometimes they love dinner and eat a lot, and sometimes they don’t.

Best of all, they tolerate the company of a variety of foods on the table, whether they choose to eat them or not.

5 Things I Know About Pre-Plated Meals

As a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve learned a lot about kids and their eating through my own tribe, their frequent dinner guests, and from the families I counsel in my private practice.

I’m sharing some highlights and drawbacks of pre-plated meals with you here.

I was a food plater.

1. Pre-plated meals tend to be based in habits, fear, or a desire to control

Sure, it’s easy and efficient to pre-plate food, get it on the table and cleaned up. If you had your food plated as a child, this may be the only way you know how to do it.

But, there are other ways.

Family-style meals puts your child in charge of selecting which foods he will eat, and how much. In contrast, pre-plating does little to teach your child how to make good food choices or how much to eat based on appetite.

2. Pre-plated food puts the food decisions in your hands, not your kids’

Taking full control of what and how much your child eats — or being too controlling — is a recipe for revolt down the road. They may overeat when on their own, or sneak food behind your back.

When you make these food decisions for your child, you rob them the experience of learning to listen to their appetite, navigating what makes up a healthy meal, and practicing balance with eating.

Family-style meals, on the other hand, allow kids to see the variety of meal components (a representation of all food groups, preferably) and gives them autonomy with food selection.

3. Parents often over-estimate portion sizes

It’s true. Because portions are so distorted nowadays, you may over-serve your child, offering adult-size portions without even knowing it. Your child may get accustomed to eating larger amounts of food.

Rather, family-style meals allow a child to figure out how much food is the right amount for his body.

4. Pre-plating food may cause friction at the table

When you’ve pre-plated a meal for your child, you become invested in how much your child eats. When your child doesn’t comply, the urge to remind, pressure or force your child to eat what’s on the plate may result in a battle of wills with your child.

And parents usually lose in the long run.

Family-style meals offer a more relaxed atmosphere and minimizes friction as long as you maintain Satter’s Division of Responsibility and a diplomatic feeding style

5. Pre-plated meals can set up impossible expectations

Children can be overwhelmed when faced with a plate full of food, foreign or not. If food items are new, or difficult to identify, then your child’s stress and anxiety can build up.

A timid or cautious personality faced with new food, and lots of it, can retreat—with his mouth closed.

And, let’s not forget the sense of failure you may feel when your child rejects the meal you’ve worked so hard on.

If meals are difficult in your household, maybe it’s time to try a new approach. Yes, it takes some trust or maybe even a leap of faith to completely change your feeding style.

You might need to change your mindset, as well.

But it really isn’t that hard to experiment with family-style feeding. You may even give up pre-plated meals altogether! 

What have you got to lose? After all, you can teach an old dog new tricks—I’m living proof.

Do you pre-plate food? Or are you a supporter of family-style meals?

Need More Help?

I created a workshop called Eat in Peace which outlines the steps to planning healthy, balanced meals while creating a positive vibe at the table.

Also, my workbook, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods is a thorough guidebook to help your child branch out with new foods. Using my systematic, step-by-step approach, you’ll be helping your child try new foods in no time!

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  1. At what age would you recommend parents start doing family style? I love this approach as well, and totally see my 13 month old getting overwhelmed if I put too much food on his plate or put too many different foods he’s unfamiliar with on his plate. I usually start him off with a couple of bites of a food he is familiar with and likes ok his plate, then have the large variety/quantity on my plate at the table. He asks for different items from my plate or I offer them to him as the meal goes on. I’m curious at what age they really develop the cognitive skills to do true family style meals like you are describing?

    1. First you are doing it perfectly right now for the age of your child. Family-style can begin as soon as you bring your baby to the table–your kinda doing it right now by letting your baby “tell” you what he wants and paying attention to when he wants more. When he’s older, like 3 ish, you can hold the plates and start letting him hold the utensils and serve himself. At around age 5, your child should be able to pass the bowls and plates and serve himself. So, it’s a progression!

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  3. I had a child with awful picky eating when little – under doctors, dietician. The more we placed him under pressure the less he ate. He is still a pain but now eats a healthy reasonably balanced diet (salad, fruit, plain cooked meat or chicken or fish, rice, fries, oat and honey cereal bars, Oreos and chocolate milk). Hates bread, eggs, mixtures, sauces and cooked vegetables. What has helped him learn to eat was to take off any pressure and let him help himself. When at others houses if even indirect pressure to eat or anything on his plate he dislikes he eats nothing at all. So both my kids help themselves to food from the pots they were cooked in.

    1. YES! This approach is something I always try to help my families of picky eaters get to because it is often the least pressure-filled, autonomous way to support kids with their eating. Thank you for sharing your success–I am happy for you and your child! 🙂

  4. I love this approach in theory, and I really want to start doing this with my girls, but given how they eat, i think if they are given free reign to plate the meal for themselves they will take more than what they actually need and will end up overeating. Do you suggest having the food passed around the table and then the serving plates left on the table in front of everyone or put back on the counter?

    1. Typically, i leave the plates in the center of the table. it reassures kids there is more if they want it. It’s good to teach them to listen to their body throughout the meal, encourage them to eat a representation of the meal including the beverage, and allow seconds. Kids are truly good at regulating their appetite, and it may not be within that one meal, but you can see it over time.

  5. We do family style meals most of the time, but what I have run into is teenagers taking a huge pile of meat and potatoes or pasta and no veggies, (we typically have two teenagers for the school year from other countries). So often what happens is I plate the meat (if we are having), making sure that there is enough for everyone to have seconds if they choose, and the rest is open for the taking. We are not heavy meat eaters, so when there is a pile of chicken breast or sliced flank steak on a platter, the idea is not for one person to take one third just for themselves. And my explanation of this, often gets lost in the “translation”. When it is just us (so we are 5), we have everything family style, and the kids (now 8 and 10) are quite good at enjoying some of everything.

    1. Kudos to you for taking on extra children–I imagine you are having to make large meals/quantities to satisfy the teens, especially if they are boys, as their appetites and calorie requirements are great! Yes, I approach the “sharing the meal/food” piece from a manners standpoint–there needs to be enough food for everyone first go-round–it’s just polite. On the other hand, as my kids have gotten older (and their appetites bigger), I make a little extra and accompany the meal with a LARGE salad or fruit salad.

  6. I was just talking about this approach with a group of young moms last night at a cooking demo. I suggested family-style feeding vs. plating as a way to add some levity to the dinner table. After all, what’s more fun than serving yourself, especially when the food is presented in pretty bowls and plates?

    1. Fun and empowering! Many families tell me it’s a dinner dynamic changer, for the better. And research shows, kids actually do eat better quality food when served in this manner, but many parents fear this won’t be the case.

  7. I grew up with a lot of food pathology in my own household, and I really like where you take this. I am wondering though, how then do I use the family style while also encouraging them to try new foods (that they may not necessarily like) — say vegetables. Is it wrong for me to feel the need to encourage beyond a variety from chicken, pasta, and broccoli? Or stick with what I know they will eat?

    1. Kathi, this is where providing a well-balanced meal of a variety of foods, routinely, helps expose and normalize the presence of new foods, even veggies. I wouldn’t just stick to what your kids like, as we know from research (and practical experience) kids tend to eat what they are presented with…so if rarely they see veggies, rarely will they eat or prefer veggies. It’s also important that you eat and enjoy veggies, serve a variety in interesting forms and flavors, and not react when they don’t eat them or pressure your kids to eat them.

  8. This is a great idea. My only problem is, our daughter has type 1 diabetes. Because she was diagnosed at 8months, we’ve been weighing her food and plating ever since. Any suggestions on how to incorporate family-style meals when food needs to be weighed for insulin purposes? We always ask her what she wants and giver her a few options and then I ask if she’s a little hungry or a lot.

    1. Hi Andrea, this is a good question. When you’re dealing with a precise diet, as you are, it does change the dynamic a bit. From what you describe, it sounds like you give your daughter a voice in the process–which is important. As she ages (not sure how old she is), you can plan to teach her how to dole out the amounts of food she needs independently and make choices within food groups. Kids enjoy and take pride in managing their nutrition–help her understand her own needs along the way, and she’ll learn over time to manage herself.

  9. That’s funny…I had the same question as Ashley. I have 2 year old triplets and couldn’t figure out how to make family style work at this age. I like the idea of asking questions and mine know sign language for “more” so they’re good at letting me know if they want more of one item. Great article!

  10. I agree, this allows both parents and kids to have the appropriate amount of control during meal occasions as recommended in Ellyn Satter’s “division of responsibility”. But what age do you recommend starting this family style serving method? My son just turned 2 and I’ve been plating most foods on his plate just out of habit from when he was an infant. Is 2 years old too young to start?

    1. Ashley,
      I think you can start soon by asking questions that allow your son to guide how much is placed on his plate. For example, “let me know when to stop,” “is it OK if i put some peas on your plate?” both of these allow your toddler some control. I think it’s good practice to use questions initially, and then when your toddler shows you he wants to do things himself, allow him to practice handling the serving spoon. Any way that you can start to give your child a voice, an opinion, an opportunity to do it himself, helps move him toward self-serving. By 5, children can pass bowls, platters and serve their own food.