The best move I made at mealtime

I wish I had known about the power of family-style meals when my kids were younger. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been using them all along, instead of plating their food at every meal. As it turns out, I really didn’t start family-style service until my oldest daughter was nine years old (and my youngest was four).

Family-style meal service is a simple way to serve meals. A throwback to the days of the Walton’s and the Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, food items are placed in bowls and on platters and passed around the table so everyone serves himself or herself.

Family-style meals are an easy way to shift the power struggles at mealtime. We weren’t “struggling” per se, but my husband and I were getting annoyed with food waste and pressuring the kids not to waste food. In other words, to finish their plate.

This practice of pushing children to finish eating, or even take another bite, is something researchers have been studying, especially its effects on eating and food preferences. What they have found is that the more children are pushed to eat, especially picky eaters, the more likely they are to resist and even dislike the food you are pushing. And if they comply—eating the amounts and foods you want them to—they may be overeating.

Family-style meals allow the child to be in charge of which foods they will eat, and how much (from what you have offered at mealtime), which is right in line with an authoritative feeding style and Satter’s Division of Responsibility. I get to be in charge of the menu items, making sure there is variety and balance to what I offer.

Even though I got started late, it was the best move I ever made for serving meals in my home. My kids have enjoyed this low-key approach, the complaints and resistance melted away, and they are able to self-regulate their own appetite, which is key to a healthy body.

Starting later meant we had some ups and downs. One child went nuts for bread for about two weeks, and another over-served herself frequently. We set ground rules like take what you think you will eat and you can always have more if you are hungry. I always included one or two food items as part of the menu that I knew my kids would eat, like fruit and a container of milk. And we lost the pressure but toed the line on no alternative meals and closing the kitchen after dinner.

Young children are learning about food, serving themselves, and learning about eating and their appetite. Family-style meals are a great way to let all this learning unfold. It has worked wonders for my family, and many other families I have had the privilege with which to work.

Have you tried family-style meals?


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About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is a Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist and author of Fearless Feeding.


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