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).
Ideas for serving 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.
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