Serving Family Style Meals

When parents begin the transition to a more authoritative approach to feeding, like the Division of Responsibility in feeding, I repeatedly hear of struggles similar to this one:

We've been following the division of labor and like it, love it, learning it philosophies (mostly) since our first meal plan with you and while we've had some improvements (mostly just cooking one meal), he has yet to try a single learning it food with the exception of strawberries. he will not ever put a learning food on his plate and if i dish some on plate before serving he will freak out until i remove it from plate. We had the butternut squash chili the other night - which was delicious - and i had to remove his bowl completely from table. So i guess its not much of a question - just please reassure me it will get better!

Parents are trying to practice their role in the feeding relationship, avoid counter-productive feeding behaviors (that might have previously been used like these), and serve a variety of foods that their child both loves and is still learning. But the push back can make it difficult to see progress.

For some children, having meals pre-plated brings about a negative reaction as soon as the food is brought over to the table. Instead of it being an enjoyable, invitation to eat from what’s offered, kids sense that their plate comes with an expectation to eat. Pair this feeling of unspoken pressure with kid’s reactions that, “I don’t like this!” or “I don’t want my food is touching!” and children’s interest in the meal often goes away before the meal ever even started.

So how do we handle this as parents?

First, we can establish regular family style meals.

As quoted from one of my favorite books on how to handle picky eating,

“Serving family style meals is the number one thing parents say defuses battles at the table.”
“Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating” by Dr. Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin

I couldn’t agree more!

In areas where we might have thought controlling what’s on our children’s plate was productive , negotiating what’s eaten was effective, or restricting the amounts of preferred foods our children are allowed to help themselves to was beneficial, we know that many dietitians and researchers agree there is value in considering how family style meals may act as a family’s tipping point to establishing a more positive feeding environment.

That’s why in this post, we will take a high level overview of:

  • What is a family style meal

  • How to set-up a family-style meal

  • Arguments against family style meals

  • Aims for the family style meal

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What is a family style meal

Much could be said on the benefits of family meals here, however for the purposes of this post, we are discussing family-style meals. Family style meals are when instead of pre-serving our children’s meals onto plates, we set each of the elements of the meal in the middle of the table (or counter or shared space) and let our kids serve themselves.

How to set-up a family style meal

Logistically, family-style meals can be done a variety of ways. From as extravagant as a holiday dinner and your best dishes to as simple as a carpet picnic eating pizza with paper plates, the family-style meals can be as (in)formal as fits your family or the situation. Some aspects that help any family-style meal be more successful include:

  • Work with your child’s age

    Parents often ask how early they can begin serving family-style. My answer is, immediately! From infancy, children can sit at the table and begin participating in the family meal. Although I usually don’t recommend children younger than three or four pass dishes around the table (without practicing on empty bowls and with plastic dishes first!), children as young as two are eager for this type of independence. Help serving them from central dishes early on, and then as their skills and coordination allows, let them to self-serve. Gradually, you can begin to also pass the dishes around the table as well.

  • Use kid-safe serving dishes

    You want children to be able to pass the dishes (if able) or at least to be able to serve themselves safely. So pans that are still hot or dishes that are about to dump out the elements within are best avoided. Instead, use lightweight dishes your children can begin to practice passing around the table. Choose fun scoops, spoons, and tongs that invite your child’s fine motor skills to be refined. This will further foster their independence of self-serving the foods being offered without frustrating them with kitchen utensils or dishes that they aren’t able to be successful with.

  • Serve at a shared space

    While many families may have a table that can seat their whole family, you can offer meals family style in a variety of places. Pull stools up to the counter, gather around a coffee table and eat on the floor, join your child at their smaller kid’s table, or put out a picnic and eat together on the ground. While some of these may not be sustainable for every family-style meal, including a variety of places for serving meals this way can make mealtimes extra fun.

Arguments against family style meals

I have shared about family-style meals often on my Instagram and in my Instagram stories. Often times, I get questions from fellow moms about if/how it works out (or doesn’t!) for their family. Here are some common challenges that seem to come up:

It diffuses the battles for sure. But my picky eaters always tend to pick the same foods (fruit, bread, etc) so I wonder if it's still worth doing if they don't really try anything new. Know what I mean?

Yes! I know what this mom means. Some ideas for encouraging your child to eat more variety from meals offered in this way include:

  • Encourage them to take a small amount of everything (think one teaspoon/bite or less), even if they don’t eat it. This might take time (if they resist it even on their plate initially), but remember that even accepting a non-preferred "learning it food" on their plates is a sign of progress! For children who aren’t willing to put all the foods on their plates, consider a “tasting plate,” which is a separate dish for any learning it foods your child is not yet comfortable having on their own plate.

  • Once the learning it foods are on their plate (or a “tasting plate”), you can help to guide them in learning to like new foods (without pressure or force). Consider these Three Frustration-Free Ways to Offer Vegetables.

  • For the known love it foods that they seem to load up on, family meals can be a great way to show them how much is available for the family. Some parents are tempted to restrict the amount of a given preferred food at a meal when it is all their child eats, particularly if the meal is pre-plated. When served family style, however, children see if more is available or not while also learning the manners to ask for more (see below).

They don’t work for us because my kids fight over the bowls they both like - so for instance here both would want ALL the cheese and whoever got to it first would empty it no matter how full and the second would be upset. Not to mention they just pretty much empty every bowl they touch whether they have any intention of eating it or not. Ages almost 4 and almost 2. Much less fighting when I just portion things out individually for us 🤷🏻‍♀️

I totally get this mom’s struggle! The cheese is almost always the first to go in my family to. With a 2 and 4 year old myself, some strategies we use to help with this include:

  • Decide that everyone can only have one helping to start until everyone else has had a chance to get some. This reminds every member of the family to be considerate of others and to pass each food before having more. This takes reinforcing, but becomes an easier to accept boundary with practice.

  • When children want to serve more than they’ll eat, remind them to only take a little for themselves as they can always come back for more. Then consider letting them serve your plate (and thus an adult portion). This fulfills their desire to serve larger portions than they’ll eat without it being wasteful.

  • Remember that family-style meals are a great time to emphasize manners, like passing dishes to one another and asking others if they want more of something before finishing it yourself. The earlier your children learn these things in the comfort of their own home and among family, the better prepared they’ll be to participate in mealtimes with others as they get older.

Do you make them spoon out something from everything you serve? Mine has told me he doesn’t want that before and doesn’t want to serve himself something like beans. I have noticed he serves himself up a larger amount of fruit when he gets to do it himself which is something I usually add to a meal to offer something I know he likes.

It sounds like mom is doing a great job offering both preferred and non-preferred foods at family-style meals. The struggle with the child taking too much of a preferred food and none of a non-preferred food is a common one, as we’ve addressed already. That’s why I do advise to let children self serve each element, but guide them as they learn the expectations in doing so. For example, if they’re going to take the whole amount of fruit for the table, remind them what is appropriate and expected. If they refuse to take any of a new food, don’t turn the feeding environment into a negative one by getting in a power struggle with them. Instead, use some consistent scripts for what you expect that can be reiterated (as needed) at every meal:

  • "Please put a little bit of everything on your plate."

  • “It is okay if you are still learning to like ____________. You don’t have to eat it.”

  • "Please pass the ________."

  • “Only take one serving to start. You can always get more once everyone else has had the chance to have some.”

  • “Would anyone like more of the ________, or may I have it?”

  • "May I be excused?"

I find I need to do a balance of family style and pre-plated. My boys really enjoy family style for the independence it gives them but they are more likely to try new things when they are already on their plates and I tell them they don’t have to eat them if they don’t want to.

I love how this mom has found a system that works for her family! Due to the hustle of the dinner hour, after school activities, getting home late from work, or having a spouse who you wait and eat later with (thus feeding the kids earlier), there are so many reasons why family-style meals aren’t always feasible. Add that to some kids not taking to family meals as well as others, and there is good reason to use them in your family in whatever way works.

That might be to include them on occasion when you feel that feeding is becoming a power struggle or your family is in a bit of a mealtime rut. These can help bring back some age-appropriate independence and offer a novel way to liven up meals again. If, however, you see that your child responds better with meals pre-plated, just make sure it isn’t because other tactics are also being used to pressure, force, or bribe more being eaten. This mom has found a great balance of feeding meals both family-style and pre-plated in a pressure-free way!

Aims for the family style meal

Remember that the main aim of family-style meals is not necessarily to get our children to eat more. While we all want to see that our efforts to provide healthy meals to our family are recognized in this way, other positive outcomes often occur prior to our children eating more.

For one, we want our children to feel interested and eager about what foods are offered. Giving them the opportunity to demonstrate independence in not just if/whether and how much they eat (their job), but also the amounts and types of foods that goes on their plates (a prerequisite to them eating it), can create an environment that automatically lessens any perceived “pressure to eat” at meal times. This, in turn, promotes both appetite and enjoyment in the meal itself.

Furthermore, family meals do a great job at emphasizing abundance versus scarcity. Often times, we see a child covet a certain type of preferred food (being a food group or just “love it foods” in general). Worried that that is the only food they’ll eat from what’s offered, it seems natural to restrict that foods even more. This, however, can create a scarcity effect that actually increases a child’s obsession with the food. Instead of equipping our child with a sense of freedom towards such food(s) and the security that there is indeed enough of that food for them to enjoy, we end up restricting them by only serving a small portion, eliminating seconds, etc. when we pre-plate. Helping children to understand the dynamics of how much food is available and visually making that evident at a family-style meal can help kids rest assured in the abundance of being allowed to have more (when available).

Here are some remarks (emphasis added) other moms shared about offering meals family-style:

Family style has been really helpful for us. My 3 YO likes the power of choosing, and I like her at least passing and seeing various foods. As often as possible, i get her to put the foods out in their dishes too, so she interacts with all of them. Thanks for this idea!

When we serve family style, we encourage putting a little of everything on your plate. Not necessarily eating it, but at least one bite of most items go on the plate. But she chooses how much of each which helps her feel in control more.

We did this a couple of days ago (thanks to your suggestion), and it worked really well! My girls ate more than usual, and it was stuff they normally don’t eat a lot of, if at all. I need to remember to do it more often!

Resources to Help

If you aren’t already a member of my community, subscribe to my newsletter as there will be many more posts in the coming months on what to do when your child pushes back to your positive, pressure-free feeding style, helping our children learn to like new foods, and how to handle it when they only eat love it foods!

Additionally, if you want some family-friendly meal ideas to begin offering as family-style meals, check out my seasonal meal plan. It includes a variety of healthy, balanced main entrees, vegetables, and starches to prepare and begin practicing family-style meals with.

I share six other simple meal ideas that can be used for family-style meals in my Love it, Like it, Learning it E-Course. In addition to the menu idea itself, I share sample scripts for what you can say to continue to create less meal time stress and more feeding success. Learn more about it here.

Next Steps

If family style meals stress you out amidst the chaos of dinner time, try to find even one meal a week where you let your little ones serve themselves. Observe how each you and your child respond to meals being offered in this way and if/how it helps to achieve less meal time stress and more feeding success. You should find that this small step can help to encourage independence, release some control/power struggles between parent+child, and empower our kids to choose variety in a way that feels natural and free instead of restricted and forced.

Do you do family style meals? I’d love to hear, so tag me @veggiesandvirtue when you share a pic of your child’s plate or family table!