The Benefits of Family Style Meals (And How to Get Started)

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Alexandra, 20 months, spooning chili from the large “family style” bowl into her dinner bowl.

Alexandra, 20 months, spooning chili from the large “family style” bowl into her dinner bowl.

Mealtimes can be stressful with little ones at home - we have our battles around our table, too. One of my goals is to share tips and strategies to make those meals a little easier. I was chatting with a friend recently who told me her daughter loves to pick food off her mother’s plate and didn’t seem to respond well when she received a plated meal. We spoke about the concept of serving meals “family style.” Serving meals family style means bringing large bowls or portions of food to the table, and allowing each member of the family to serve themselves the quantity they desire.

Sometimes I receive pushback: “it’s messy” (isn’t all feeding messy?), “it takes too much time” (less walking back and forth to the kitchen to get more!), “what about the waste?” (save the food on your child’s plate). I always challenge these statements. Serving meals family style has so many benefits.

Benefits of Family Style Meals

  1. We are trusting our children. I wrote a blog post about our children’s development of a healthy relationship with food and the Division of Responsibility. As parents and caregivers, we are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding and our children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating. When we serve meals family style, we are truly embodying this concept. We are allowing our children to decide how much to serve based on the food we are offering.

  2. We aren’t overwhelming or underwhelming. When we plate foods for our children, we are using our own judgement of what we think they should be getting vs. what they may want. Sometimes, when we put too much food on a plate for a child, it can overwhelm them and make it harder for them to eat. Similarly, we may be underserving our children. But when we let them choose we are leaving it up to them.

  3. We are giving children autonomy. Does your child want to do everything by themselves? As children start to grow, they gain independence. “I do it” has been both of my girls most used phrase at one point or another. By allowing them to plate their own food, we are providing that autonomy, when many times throughout the day, they don’t have that available.

  4. We are giving our children opportunities to interact with the food. There are many steps to trying new foods- including encouraging our children to interact with new food. Serving meals family style means that even if a child does not try the food provided, they may be having an interaction with that food (see my tips below for getting started as to what this looks like in practice). They may pass the food along, or plate it on their dish or a separate dish nearby.

  5. The benefit to the mess. Yes, family style meals may start out messy as our children are learning how to plate their own food, but there is benefit to the mess! I recently posted on Instagram about the benefit of getting messy at mealtimes in the kitchen. Eating food uses all of our senses. Touching is one of those senses. Giving opportunity to touch foods, can be a great way for more selective children to interact with those foods.

  6. Help with motor skills. Allowing children to use large utensils, like serving spoons, can help develop their motor skills.

How To Get Started Serving Family Style

It may sound daunting to serve meals family style, here are some tips to get started with your little ones, get started as soon as they are able to understand the concept.

  1. Have all the food ready to go prior to sitting down. Having food ready in advance Many of my clients truggle to get food ready on a set schedule, but this is one major benefit of a pre-meal routine that includes food going on the table while kids get ready. Once your little ones are back, you can start serving the meal. Although it may not always work out, having the food ready to go and everyone sitting at the table together is an important component to the ritual of eating and a healthy relationship with food.

  2. Start passing the given foods around the table. Have a parent or caregiver begin by passing around the foods available. If you have a child that does not quite have enough strength or coordination to pick up the bowl or plate, have a parent or caregiver help. Allow the child to take a portion of the food. If you have a child that does not want to eat that food (they are more selective/picky or they are still learning about that food), ask if they want to place some of the food on their placemat, or keep a separate dish next to their main dish (sometimes called a “learning plate”) for foods they may not yet be eating. If that is still too difficult for the child, pass the food to the next person. EVEN if a child has not taken any of a specific food, the fact that they are offered the food, the plate or bowl is in front of them, means they have had an interaction with that food.

  3. Continue step 2 until all food has been passed around.

  4. Enjoy food with your family. Remember, that following the division of responsibility means that if a child wants more of a given food, they are welcome to take that food. They are responsible for the how much and whether they are eating that food.

  5. Clean up. Involve your child in the clean up process. If they did not interact with a given food, maybe they can throw that food in the trash, place in a container to store leftovers, or place in a trash bowl.

Do you serve meals family style? Let me know how it’s going!


And yes, sometimes family style meals end up like this…