Before parents were popping meals in the microwave and serving meals in the car or on the fly, family meals and family-style service went hand-in-hand with homemade meals and family dinnertime.
While the benefits of family meals—including eating healthier foods and better academic performance in school—is reason enough to pull the family around the table, we know now that the way you serve meals may have positive effects on appetite regulation and eating behaviors. Proponents of family-style service believe that this style allows the child to better tune in to his or her appetite and regulate it. In the end, this can help the child avoid overeating and under-eating.
How it works
Rather than serving a pre-plated meal to your child, platters and bowls of food are placed in the center of the table and passed around so that each family member can serve him or herself.
Stage One: The young toddler—This is an introductory stage where you offer each dish on the menu, telling your child what it is, asking your child if he or she would like to have some, and serving small amounts. At this point, it’s all about identifying food and engaging your child in conversation, allowing the child to have a voice at the table. It can go something like this: “These are mashed potatoes. Would you like some?” Placing a small amount on the plate “Would you like more?” You are deferring to the child.
Stage Two: The older toddler—Now, your child is comfortable with self-feeding and can use the spoon to serve while you hold the dish. You are still identifying what is in the meal, but letting your child take the lead with self-service. Remember, there is a lot of learning going on, and this includes over-serving, spills, or discovering that something is disliked or loved. This is a typical picky eating stage, and family-style meals can help to ease the struggle.
Stage Three: The preschooler—Many children are able to pass and serve themselves at this point. They have been in preschool or a daycare center and have mastered pouring liquids out of small jugs, carrying heavier objects, and passing food at the snack table. It is important to carry on this independence in the home. By the end of the fifth year, the goal is to have an independent person at the table who participates in passing around the meal and serving him or herself. Of course, you can always help when it is needed, but if you find yourself still in stage two, it’s time to move on.
Some additional thoughts for success:
Small children need small plates and utensils. A 2013 study showed that when adult-size plates were used, children served themselves more and ate more.
Expect the mess. The early stages of family-style meals can be messy. Prepare yourself for some spills, and let your child help with cleanup.
Teach manners as you go, especially the “yes, please” and “no, thank you” rules. Children do best when given the tools and language for successful eating.
Family-style meals offer an environment where your child can learn about food and manners. They allow your child to become an individual at the table and, over time, can help your child eat healthier fare and be good at knowing when to eat, how much to eat, and when to stop.
- Benjamin Neelon SE, Briley ME, American Dietetic Association
- Position of the American Dietetic Association: benchmarks for nutrition in child care. J Am Diet Assoc
- 2011 Apr; 111(4):607-15.
DiSantis KI, Birch LL, Davey A, Serrano EL, Zhang J, Bruton Y, Fisher JO
- Plate size and children’s appetite: effects of larger dishware on self-served portions and intake
- 2013 May;131(5):e1451-8
- doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2330
- Epub 2013 Apr 8.
- Dev, Brent A
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Benchmarks for Nutrition in Child Care 2011: Are Child-Care Providers across Contexts Meeting Recommendations? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013; 113 (10): 1346 DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.05.023
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