You may be thinking that serving meals family-style means chaos and a lot of cleanups. But, family-style meals are actually an opportunity to implement a different feeding strategy for your child who may be difficult to feed or simply for establishing healthy eating habits for the future. So, what exactly are family-style meals? Family-style meals are when you place the components of a meal on the table in their appropriate serving dish so everyone at the table can serve themselves. You then pass the dishes around and place them back in the middle of the table if seconds are desired. This dining style encourages many opportunities for learning and development that will follow children into adulthood and can be a fun way to spend time together with your family. In this article, you will learn about the benefits of family-style meals, who can participate in these meals, and how to get started in your home.
Why are family-style meals important?
Family-style meals can be beneficial in many ways. It creates an opportunity for children to choose which foods they want to eat and determine how much to eat. This opportunity gives your child the autonomy they seek from a young age and can help grow their independence and self-confidence in the process. This dining style is essential for learning and recognizing hunger and fullness cues from an early age. The typical style of pre-loading a child’s plate with an expectation for them to finish can be overwhelming and hinder your child from learning to listen to their body. Instead, allow them to choose what and how much they would like to eat from the options on the table; this action will better allow them to recognize their body’s cues.
Having your child serve themselves family-style can also expose them to new foods in a comfortable, low-pressure environment. This type of exposure can be an excellent way to allow your child to get more familiar with a new food before even trying it. If your child does not want the new food offered, have them scoop a portion onto your plate for additional exposure. Family-style meals also provide an ideal environment to develop their fine motor skills; these activities look like passing plates, holding bowls, and serving food onto their plates. For instances where a serving dish may be too heavy or difficult for them to hold, assisting them will be necessary, but still, encourage them to scoop out their portion to hone their motor skills. Lastly, family-style meals are an excellent way to guide your child in making healthy food choices from a young age. Studies show that children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than three family meals (1).
Who can participate in family-style meals (and when)?
Your next question may be who can participate? Children as young as toddler age can begin to join in family-style meals, with some assistance of course. Allowing your toddler to help with these mealtimes can be an appropriate way to begin to foster their independence with their eating habits. For children under the age of 5, depending on the size of the bowls and plates, can participate in family-style dining as well; if the serving dishes are hard to hold for the child, parents can assist, and the child can still decide what and how much they would like to eat. This support allows them to still have the benefits of food exposure and fine motor skill development. Children over the age of 5 can independently serve themselves, holding and passing dishes with confidence (or with assistance if needed).
How to get started
To begin with, family-style meals, start simple with breakfast on the weekend. Beginning with an easier mealtime with fewer components can help you and your family ease into this style of dining. Start with a bowl of cut fruit, a plate with eggs, or toast, and a jug of milk or juice in the center. Next, you will need to start with the right equipment; keep in mind that this equipment needs to be child-friendly bowls and utensils that will help your child serve themselves with ease. It is also important to remember each child’s skill level at the table when choosing your dishes for the meal. Finger foods and appropriately cut food for child-size utensils are easier for them to self-serve. Offer a variety of foods for each meal; a combined dish and a few sides are best. Make sure to provide 1-2 familiar foods you know your child will eat if they do not want to eat the others. This measure will ensure they will still have comfort foods to eat if they choose not to eat the others. Most importantly, eat with your children! Sharing meals will be both a fun and educational experience for you and your child.
- Hammons, A. J., & Fiese, B. H. (2011). Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents?. Pediatrics, 127(6), e1565–e1574. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2010-1440