Do you serve family style meals? Here’s why letting kids serve themselves can have a positive impact on what and how much they eat.
I didn’t grow up with family style meals. My mom plated everything for us at the stove (I’m pretty sure she still does this for my dad too). So that’s how I served meals when I had my own family. But as I learned more about the family style approach, I decided to use it a lot more often.
How family style meals help kids
Family style meals have long been praised by feeding experts and encouraged in child care settings. My son’s child care center served lunch this way, but what I didn’t know at the time is that there’s an active push by the USDA and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for centers to do this. Why? Here are some of the perks of letting kids serve themselves, according to the USDA:
- It encourages kids to listen to their hunger and fullness cues. When children can pick their own portions, they can consider how hungry they are in that moment. You may think you know how much your child should eat, but you might be serving them too much. That can either overwhelm them (and actually discourage them from eating very much) or cause them to chronically overeat. Ever overeaten at a restaurant when served an oversized portion? Me too!
- It allows kids to see others making healthy choices. When you select veggies from a platter, you’re modeling good choices for your kids–and watching you do that has a positive effect. They may not choose the veggies every night, but it’s still powerful modeling. In research, when preschoolers observed other kids choosing and eating veggies that they (the observers) didn’t like, their preference and consumption of those same veggies went up!
- It helps kids build motor skills by lifting bowls, scooping food, and pouring sauces (they also practice table manners as they’re passing food and taking turns).
3 ways to serve family style meals
I have a large serving bowl–it measures 13 inches in diameter–and I use it in different ways to serve family style. My favorite strategy (because it creates the fewest dishes): Put everything in it! For example, here’s a bed of whole wheat egg noodles, breaded chicken breasts cut in half, and sautéed asparagus.
I also use the big serving bowl to present build-your-own meals. These are the fillings for fish tacos with mango (the fish was plated separately). You could do this with burritos, salads, or baked potatoes. Station it in the center of the table and let everyone take their favorites.
Or sometimes I put part of the meal in it, like these drumsticks and potatoes, and serve sides in other bowls.
You can also skip using serving dishes altogether and place pots and pans right onto the table (it goes without saying, but be sure pots aren’t too hot for little hands to touch).
What if kids don’t take certain foods?
Remember that when serving family style meals, your kids may not take certain foods. You can gently encourage them to try everything, but the family style meal approach leaves it up to them. If that concerns you, giving your child a small Taste Plate is a good strategy.
More help for picky eaters
- Should You Make Your Kids Take Just One Bite? This is what worked for us.
- Is your kid as picky as you think? Here are 5 things that make picky eating worse.
- This is my number-one piece of advice for parents: The Dinnertime Rule That Will Change Your Life
- Transform mealtime vibes TONIGHT! Here are 5 things to say at the table to your picky eater to make mealtime easier.
At what age do you consider this helpful instead of frustrating. We have a 4, 2, and newborn. We occasionally do family style on taco night, but I find that we usually end up with nothing but cheese on the kids plates and/or a giant mess -_-
I recently read this same advice from a different blogger/expert and have tried it this week with my 7, 5, and almost 3 year old. My oldest (who is the best eater) took to it right away. At lunch today she ate a whole bowl of baby carrots which I had set out family style, in addition to her own hearty lunch. My boys – the pickier ones – will take a little more practice, but even they seemed to like the autonomy it gave them. I’ve noticed they are putting things on their plates they don’t normally eat, and in large quantities. Of course they don’t eat them (yet), but I’m hoping that will come in time. So I guess stick to it and perhaps in a year you’ll have some success.
Thanks for your comment Amy! I’m glad it’s working well for you and your kids. You touched on something important–we need to be thinking long-term with these strategies, not short-term. Something you try may not work the first time, the first week, the first month, but it’s the consistency of things over time that can change attitudes and behaviors.
Well, obviously the newborn is a little young. 🙂 But toddlers and preschoolers can definitely do family style, but you may need to provide some assistance. If they only want to put cheese on their plates, the Taste Plate option might work for you. Some kids do fine with a “put a little bit of everything on your plate so you can try it” but if you get push-back, I wouldn’t force that issue.
@home and @peace
Thanks for the reminder! I’m currently a stay at home RD mom of five (all under 10yrs) and can fall into the “hurry up and do it for them” mentality very easily. Getting ready to dabble in the professional world again on a very part-time basis and I’ve been reading your posts to get back into the swing of things and get a feel for what’s been happening in the RD food world since I’ve been home. 🙂 Thanks for your work, a great attitude and beautiful posts!
Thank you! 🙂 I think we all need some reminders now and again and slow down and let kids take their time. I know I’m guilty of the “hurry up and do it for them” mentality too, whether it’s packing lunches and backpacks or putting laundry away.
This is how I serve meals at my house, too. My job is to put food on the table, and once it’s there everyone gets to choose what and how much to eat for themselves. Family-style meals eliminate so many battles, and often lead to creative combinations I hadn’t considered. LOVE that idea with the serving bowl! That will solve the zillion-dish problem at my house. I have the perfect one tucked away in the basement – off to grab it right now.
Laura–good point about the crazy combinations. And glad you have a big bowl that will fit the bill. I love serving meals in mine.
As a grandparent living next door, I often have children for meals. We also lived together for almost 2 years while they built a home. The girls who are 7 and 9 have exvellent eating habits, which helps. I played with some ideas, kind of like this. For lunch I used a cupcake baking ban with 6 cupcake positions. I put nuts, cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, crackers. carrots, in different combinations. Left them paltes and they served themselves. The menu changed up depending on what vegetables or crackers etc. They really eally liked this. They ate very well and ate what they were interested in wihtin the selection. Usually they touched on most of it. Dinner was easy to do this way when I had them b myself. Chicken, steak, pork in one section, pasta vegetables and fruit …….it is a new twist for choice and it is intriguing……so on the same trail of serving themselves.
Terry–the muffin tin idea is really cute and I could definitely see how it’s really appealing to kids. Thanks!
Funny – I guess it’s all what you’re used to. I never thought of this as a “thing.” I’d never seen things done any other way – I certainly hadn’t seen anybody plate meals up at the stove growing up. In a family of ten, it definitely wouldn’t be practical. Although I’m also sort of puzzled: why would it be a good way of doing things for any family, of any size? It doesn’t seem like mom plating everybody’s food in the kitchen has much to be said for it in any family. Why would anybody do that, unless their idea of normal eating is formed by imitating restaurant service?
Anna–yep, definitely what you’re used to. I know for many people, plating the food at the stove can help with portion control. Other people may not want to deal with the dishes of family style. Whatever works is my motto!
Since having read the same about portion control, we very rarely serve “family style.” I know it helps me not eat too much, same for the household member with special needs who simply eats whatever amount is placed in front of her, whether it’s a small or a large portion. However, I often have the family in the kitchen when I plate up and ask how much they want. Seconds are sometimes available.
Whats your trick for heating up the food? I batch cook, and tend to use the microwave to heat everything up, so that is why I usually have been plating the meals for my kids. would love to hear any tricks. Always seems more tricky to heat things adequately when you get serving bowl size in the microwave
Hi Rosemary–That’s a great point, haven’t encountered that as I don’t do a lot of batch cooking with reheating. It probably is quicker to reheat in smaller portions, so I can definitely understand that. Perhaps one way to compromise would be to have your family plate their own before reheating so each person could choose their portion. Just an idea.
On one occasion we had a couple of guests for dinner. I had worked very hard on the meal and served it family style. We sat around the table and said grace. During the prayer, one of the guest’s children began sneezing and sneezed all over my meal! On another occasion, I had baked some homemade cookies for dessert, and a grown man decided to use the clean platter on which the cookies were arranged as his own personal plate. He grabbed a cookie, bit it, and as he was munching, he placed the bitten cookie back on the cookie platter until he was ready to take another bite.
So for the sake of cleanliness, I much prefer to serve pre-plated meals. If the individual eats less than what I’ve plated, so be it. If the remnants of an individual portion go to waste, it’s still better than having the contents of an entire serving dish be contaminated.
1. So let’s say you served perogies, peas and bananas. My son finishes his perogies and then wants more before he touches his peas or bananas, do I give him unlimited perogies? – – 2. If he says he’s done his dinner and dessert and then later says he’s hungry before bed do I give him more of what we had for supper or something else like apple, grapes, cheese etc.?
Hi Jamie–There are a couple schools of thought on this. One schools says to allow your child to decide and don’t harp on the other foods. I do gently encourage my kids to eat the other foods on their plates. Or I may have self-limiting portions (like just one dinner roll for everyone, then there’s no more). Dina Rose, of It’s Not About Nutrition, has a concept for encouraging kids to eat the variety of foods on their plate called One-One if you want to read her take on it: http://itsnotaboutnutrition.com/2017/06/13/solve-seconds-problem-one-step/
In terms of bedtime, you could save his unfinished foods and offer him seconds of that (I wrote about that here: https://www.realmomnutrition.com/coming-to-peace-with-a-not-so-perfect-dinnertime/) or you could give him a bedtime snack. If you feel like he’s not eating his dinner so he can save room for a preferred bedtime snack, I would aim to serve those dinner-type foods for the snack. Otherwise, a small something at bedtime is reasonable, like the items you mentioned. I know my teenager eats a hefty snack before bed because he’s so hungry (he eats firsts and seconds at dinner too).
Hope that helps!