Family-Style Meals Help Raise Healthy Eaters

Eating together is a great way to boost your family's nutrition, expose kids to a variety of foods, and help everyone catch up at the end of the day. But how we serve food at family meals also matters. In my family, we have been doing meals family-style for about three years. And none of us wants to go back to pre-portioned-style eating.

If my children (aged 4 and 7) were presented with a plate of food, they would look at me in surprise. If I were to insist they finish all their food, they would probably be horrified.

But when they choose the food and the amounts they want, they tend to have a balanced diet and regularly sample new foods that I prepare.

What Is Your "Food Parenting" Style?

Eating family-style is almost always the first step I recommend to families looking to reduce mealtime pressure and help kids overcome picky eating. It is an integral part of the "authoritative food parenting" style that has been shown to help raise kids who do not have better diets but also are less likely to eat for emotional reasons and be overweight later in life. When a child is allowed to serve himself or herself as much — or as little — of the food as they desire, mealtime pressure goes down almost immediately. Besides, kids start feeling much more positive about eating and stay attuned to their bodies' hunger-satiety signals. This helps them stop eating when they are comfortably full.

Benefits of Family-Style Meals

Eating family-style has been promoted for a few decades by the guru in the field of family nutrition, Ellyn Satter, RD. In addition, multiple food service management institutions across the nation, such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), recommend family-style eating for children in school, emphasizing the multiple benefits: reinforcing social skills (i.e., passing food and taking turns), promoting serving and fine motor skills, enabling children to take control of their eating (i.e., giving them the flexibility to not take something early on, but decide to try it later), and encouragement to try new foods.

Research also shows that, indeed, serving meals family-style is a great way to boost your kids' confidence, social and motor skills, and table manners, while allowing them to monitor their hunger and food intake. And when researchers looked into the practicality of serving meals family-style, they did not notice more waste or time spent eating. Instead, they concluded: "Family-style food service promotes opportunities for children to develop skills in the same way that other planned activities do."

How to Get Family-Style Meals Right

  1. Keep It Balanced
    Serve a meal consisting of three to four food groups in serving bowls in the middle of the table. Pass the bowls around the table so that everyone can get a chance to take some.
  2. Take Your Child's Preferences into Account
    Make sure at least one of the foods is something your child typically eats if he or she is hungry. It can be protein, starch, vegetable, fruit or bread and milk. For example, if I serve a protein my kids find challenging, I make sure to prepare a rice or potato dish that they love and a vegetable that they've accepted before. If chicken and fruit (which they like) are on the menu, I can prepare a vegetable and starch that they are not that crazy about. On the days when meals are especially challenging (think sautéed cabbage and steamed fish), I make sure to buy their favorite bread and fruit. This way, they can always find what to eat from what is available.
  3. Make it Convenient
    Purchase child-size serving utensils and small serving bowls that are easy for small hands to handle.
  4. Keep it Practical
    I recommend buying serving bowls that come with lids so that leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator to be "repurposed" as lunch box items or other meals.
  5. Be Patient
    At first, children may make mistakes in how much food to scoop on their plate. They may also stick to their favorites for a while, especially if they have been pressured to eat certain foods like vegetables or not allowed second helpings of pasta.
  6. Follow the Division of Responsibility in Feeding
    Allow your child to eat as much or as little as she wants during the meal. Make sure to establish structure in meals and snacks, and avoid serving anything except water in between.

The good thing about family-style is that any meal can be served that way. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Rice, cooked beans, vegetables, fruit and milk
  • Mediterranean meal: hummus, pita bread, vegetables and olives
  • Potato bar: baked potato, sour cream, butter, chives, cheese, ham and green salad
  • Pasta bar: cooked pasta with tomato sauce, sausage and cheese served separately
  • Steak, roasted potatoes, salad and fruit
  • Fish, quinoa, vegetables, yogurt and bread

For more inspiration, check out my Pinterest board with family-style meals and tools.

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Natalia Stasenko
Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, is a U.S.-credentialed pediatric dietitian based in London and New York and the owner of Feeding Bytes. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.