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.
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.
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!