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Summer Change-Up: Try Family-Style Meals

As school ends and summer begins, a new routine is on the horizon for many of you. Will you be even crazier–running back and forth from the pool and park, or on the road heading to vacation-land? Or will you slow down and take the opportunity to refresh, relax and practice some new habits?

I wrote this post last summer (I can tell by looking at all the fresh fruit and veggies!), and am resurrecting it this week as I finish Fearless Feeding (due this Friday!). Many of you will look to summer as a time to slow down and work on the things you’ve been meaning to change. Maybe this will provide a little inspiration… 

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.

Benefits of Family-Style Meals

  • They provide children with an opportunity to hone their motor skills, such as balance, passing platters, holding bowls and scooping food, for example. Kids under 5 need more help, but can still handle the serving utensils.
  • 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.

Exposure to New Food

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.

How to Do Family-Style Meals

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.

Try and Watch the Response

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.

You’re In Charge of Food Balance

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. I also prefer family style for young children. Picky eaters want be in control of their destiny and it is a model based on trust. Plating can be a good method for adults that have a tendency to overeat – according to research by Brian Wansink. I am thinking of plating food for my husband and I next year as we enter the empty nest phase, but I would need to get my husband’s agreement on that. Sometimes he takes seconds when he is no longer hungry and he would be too lazy to go to the kitchen for more food. However, how the heck am I supposed to know how hungry he is as I plate his food?

    1. Hi Maureen–you bring up a good point–kids are different than adults! As parents, we forget that the rules/approaches for adults often don’t apply or aren’t even appropriate for kids–I think the difference with plating food for adults is that developmentally, cognitively and emotionally they can rationalize that they can have more/get more if they need to, whereas kids, especially younger ones and young school-agers, just see what’s in front of them and cannot rationalize/understand that more is available (if parents truly make more available when desired–another issue).
      I don’t know if my hubby would accept my plating his food! Ha Ha! I know that when he serves me, half the time he is off on the amounts…either too much or too little of the things i really want to eat. 🙂