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Family-Style Meals [Benefits & Basics]

This post was updated in April, 2019.

When I was growing up, my mother served “family-style” meals. 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 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.

In this article, you’ll learn about family-style meals, their benefits, and the basic blueprint for setting them up in your home.

Family-Style Meals: Benefits and Basics

Why I Like Family-Style Meals:

I like family-style meals for several reasons:

  • They provide young children with opportunities to hone their motor skills, such as balance, passing platters, holding bowls and scooping food, for example.
  • 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. 
  • Trust is promoted, 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 & the Division of Responsibility

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

Family-style meals can enhance exposure to new foods in a natural and relaxed way. And, when you get your feeding style in the right place, they compliment 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 options get handed around, and each child holds, looks at, and smells all the individual foods at the table.

Even if your picky eater snubs the broccoli, she still needs to be polite and pass it around, experiencing broccoli in the meantime.

family style meals

Who Can Participate in Family-Style Meals (& When)?

Young toddlers can begin to practice the family-style meal at the table with you. It’s appropriate to allow your toddler more independence and a voice 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, holding and passing platters and bowls and serving themselves. Of course, if your child needs help, support him.

If You’re Used to Pre-Plating Food 

Many parents are “food platers.”  In other words, they pre-plate food for their children. They serve up the 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, leading kids to react in ways that are counter-productive to their health (like overeating). “Plating” may also overshoot kid portion-sizes.

I used to be a mom who plated her kids’ food. You might like to read about my experience and what made me make the change to family-style meals.

The Amazing Shift at the Table 

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 a subtle shift in control from the parent to the child, diffusing the drama at the meal table.

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.

My experience has been that kids do love the freedom of serving themselves. Some kids can get carried away initially, but this passes as they get used to this style of meal service. Eventually, they relax about getting enough to eat and tune into their own hunger.

Remember, this is a learning process! Kids don’t know how much to eat, but can learn a lot about their appetite and regulating it through family meals.

A Word about Balanced Meals

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 use strategy in your meal planning.

The Benefits of Family-Style Meals

Family-style meals have a great benefit for children. Studies suggest children may eat better and healthier, learn positive social skills, and negotiate nutrition in meaningful ways with this approach.

Try it—your family may like it! I think it’s part of the pathway 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!

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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!