This is How Family Style Dining Can Help Your Child Eat Better


`The thought of letting your kids serve themselves at mealtimes might seem counterintuitive. When I talk with parents about this, many cringe and push-back on the idea with the thought of how much chaos this might create at the dinner table.

But could the simple act of letting your child plate their own food actually be a powerful tool for building their confidence with eating?

Family style meals can actually be an effective feeding strategy for raising a healthy eater. Your child can build trust in their ability to feed their bodies when given the chance to explore with food amounts and how much they need to eat to feel satisfied.

What does it mean to do family style dining?

What were family meals like for you growing up? For many families, it is common to have a portion of food plated out at the start of a meal.

For some families, everyone is required to eat a certain amount or try everything served on a plate. For others, meal time might mean fending for yourself and eating whatever might be available in the fridge or pantry.

The family style approach simply gives kids (and adults) a chance to put the foods they are interested in eating on their plates themselves. This gives them the opportunity to choose to eat from the options made available to them.

It can be as simple as putting the food that’s been prepared for a meal at the center of the table and letting a child serve themselves.

Why is it helpful to let kids serve themselves at meal times?

Letting a child have control of what they want to eat and how much of a food they want to eat can seem like a recipe for disaster and chaos at the dinner table. So why should family style be an approach for eating?

While letting your kids take the reigns of plating their food selections can seem like more work, it is actually a feeding tactic that can help your child build a positive relationship with food over the long-term.

Here are some reasons why your kids might benefit from family style meals:

  • Nurture a Positive Feeding Relationship: Research has shown that children who are fed with positive feeding tactics rather than controlling or restricting approaches are more likely to feel better about eating. Family style meals is a positive feeding strategy that doesn’t put any pressure on kids to eat certain foods.

  • Encourage a willingness to try new foods: Without added pressure or force to try or eat certain foods, kids will be more curious and willing to try different foods on their own, including vegetables.

  • Allows kids to eat an amount that is right for them: No one except your child knows how much food your child might need to meet their growth needs. As parents, it’s easy to interfere with our child’s normal eating ability by encouraging them to eat more or less or putting more food on their plates because we think they need to eat more. This tends to overwhelm kids and often deters them trusting their own body. By plating their own food, kids are better able to gage what amount of food is right for them.

  • Improvement with Fine-Motor Skills: Letting your child practice with serving, scooping, plating, etc. is actually supporting the development of their fine-motor skills. This will help them be better coordinated with utensils as they grow.

How can I start with family style dining?

Family style dining begins with having regular meal times as a family. In order to create the safe opportunities needed to practice family style meals, family members need a consistent time and place to share meals together.

Start by creating a regular meal schedule for your family, which can set up the opportunities you need to have family meals.

The good news is that you don’t have to make special foods or cook anything different to start having family style meals. You can just put the dishes you have prepared on the table and allow your child to plate the foods they want to eat rather than do it for them.

You can serve foods in the pans/pots you have cooked in or put everything together on large serving platters. Setting up “buffet” style can also be helpful, where dishes are put out on the table. This might look like a Taco-night bar, where you put the ingredients out and let your family members choose what they want to put on their plates and how they want to assemble their tacos.

Some meals may be easier to do this for than others, but remember, it is about practice for your kids. Be sure to exercise appropriate safety guidelines when needed and assist your child as necessary, especially with foods that are hot or easier to spill/splash.

Commonly Asked Questions About the family style approach to meals

If you’re curious about trying family style meals but are worried about how this might look in your home, you are not alone. Here are some of the common questions asked about serving meals family style:

1. At what age can let my kids try the family style approach?

We’ve started with our kids as young as two years old, but use your discretion with your own children. Kids will only learn how to serve themselves when they have repeated opportunities to try. You might need to help them at first but don’t be afraid to let them try it out.

2. What if my child doesn’t want to put any food on their plate?

This is an important learning opportunity for you and your child. You may want to impose certain rules about how much they should eat or feel inclined to put something on their plate you think they should eat. However, this defeats the purpose of family meals. If you child is not interested in eating or in putting food on their plate, respect their decision to do so. Remember, parents provide, kids decide. Stick to your meal schedule and remind them that they don’t have to eat if they’re not hungry but that there won’t be anything else to eat until the next meal or snack.

3. What if I’m unsure of the amount my child’s put on their plate?

When kids are learning how to plate their own food, they will inevitable have a trial and error period. They might put too much of something on their plate or realize that maybe they didn’t put quite enough of what they wanted to eat. This is all okay and normal. On your end, try to be aware of your reactions to them and what you might be communicating through verbal and non-verbal cues. Keep your language neutral to help them know that you trust them to eat according to what their body needs.

4. What if there is not enough of a certain dish to go around?

You may have prepared a family favorite dish and there may only be so much of it for everyone. If your child wants more of a dish that has limited quantity, gently remind them to ask other family members if they would like some before they help themselves to more. Also be sure to keep other foods available on the table that there may be more amply amounts of, like bread, milk, etc.

5. How can I minimize food waste?

You might be worried about the amount of food that may go uneaten when children have the chance to serve themselves, and this is a valid concern. You can help a child better estimate their portions by asking that they don’t take more of a certain dish until they have eaten what is on their plate (not to be confused with being forced to clean their plate at mealtimes). Inevitably, whether you or their child plates their food, there will be food that goes uneaten as long as your child is listening to their bodies. You can creatively repurpose leftovers and save edible, uneaten food for a meal the next day. Forcing your kids to eat more food than they need may decrease food waste, but it can also create problematic issues for your child when it comes to eating.

You can help your child be more responsive to their innate cues of hunger and satiety by providing low-pressure opportunities for eating. Family style meals can support your child’s ability to regulate how much they need to eat that is right for them while encouraging a positive relationship with food and their bodies.