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One of the best ways to encourage healthy eating and enjoy mealtime with your family is to switch from pre-plating your child's food and start serving meals "family style."

Parents frequently ask, "How can I get my child to eat more foods? She's so picky." Often this picky eating can turn into a power struggle between parent and child. This is frustrating for everyone, but this is one area of life that a child has some control. Think about how much is out of their control. Ultimately, a child can refuse to eat a food and there isn't much a parent can do about it. "Choose your battles wisely," as the saying goes, because children will win this one.

Your family may already eat meals together, but you may be skipping on some of the important pieces that can help improve your child's acceptance of new foods and help him to develop healthy habits that will carry on throughout life. If you've found yourself battling over how much or what your kids should be eating, family style meals can be a game changer.

What are Family Style Meals?

Family style meals are eating together as a family with adults and children at the same table. It is putting all the food in serving bowls and allowing both children and adults to serve themselves. It is passing the bowls around the table, waiting for your turn. It is parents patiently assisting a young child with the serving spoon. Or giving your preschool age child the independence to try for himself and learn from the experience. After the food has been passed around the table, offer children the chance to help pour their own drink from a small pitcher.

Parents often pre-plate food for young children. This can be simpler at first, but as your child grows he needs to be given the opportunity to develop important skills around eating. As adults, we like to decide whether we'll eat the green beans or not and if we decide to take a serving we like to be able to decide how much we put on our own plate. Children are capable of doing the same; we just have to let them.

Benefits of Family Style Meals:

  • Children feel in control of their own eating
  • Social skills develop: sharing, taking turns, saying please and thank you
  • Motor skills develop: setting table, pouring own milk, learning to serve themselves without touching the serving bowl
  • Less waste when children serve themselves
  • Indirectly encourages children to try new foods
  • Healthy habits develop early which helps prevent obesity

Let's expand on #1: Children feel in control of their own eating. One of the roles parents have is to help children develop independence. Your role as it relates to eating is to help them grow up to have a healthy relationship with food where they can eat a variety of healthful foods to nourish, but also know that all foods can be part of an overall healthy diet. This involves giving up some control as parents and trusting your child's internal cues about hunger and fullness.

Internal Cues for Hunger and Fullness

An important concept to understand and actually recognize is that we are all born with the ability to know when we are hungry and when we are full. Overtime these internal cues for "I'm hungry" and "I'm full" can be overridden by outside factors. Adult caregivers will often encourage a baby to finish a bottle because there is more milk left, or take two more bites before being finished. Despite being well-intentioned, this can be harmful to a child's ability to recognize and trust their OWN internal signals saying, "I'm full. I'm done eating for now."

Think about the last time you ate until the point of being uncomfortable. Maybe you loved the dish and couldn't get enough or perhaps you had a few bites left and you cleaned your plate to prevent wasting food. If we pay attention to our body, it gives us signs of fullness or cues to stop eating. We can be mindful of our hunger and fullness throughout the meal. This is our body's biological way of regulating our food intake with our actual need for food, which, if we listen, promotes a healthy weight. You can encourage your child to do the same.

This quote about supporting your child's internal cues for hunger and fullness is extremely meaningful,

Adults—both parents and teachers—often make comments such as, "One more bite and you will be done." When they do this, they are suggesting to children, "I don't trust your cues." Eventually such repeated messages cause children to no longer trust their own cues and instead to make decisions about how much to eat based on external cues or pressure from others.


--Brent McBride & Dipti Dev; Young Children, November 2014

Getting Started: What age are kids ready for serving themselves?

Usually around 2 years of age, a child is ready to begin serving himself food. This will typically involve hand-over-hand assistance at first. Allow your child to hold the serving spoon, place your hand over his, and scoop together. Give your child more independence as he is developmentally ready. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of serving the entire meal family style, start with the side dishes or try snacks first. Invest in a few child-sized serving utensils, bowls and pitchers to make it easier.

How much food should I let my child take?

A general rule of thumb for children 1-5 years old is to serve one tablespoon per year of age as a starting point. You can explain at the beginning of the meal, "Since you are 3-years old, you may take 3 scoops of pasta." When a child asks for seconds, it is important to ask, "Is your stomach still hungry or does it feel like it has had enough?" By asking these questions you are teaching your child to listen to how his body feels and he learns to understand how much food it takes to feel satisfied and what it feels like to want more to eat.

A child's appetite will be different day-to-day. This is normal. Children should be allowed to take more food if they are still hungry, likewise, they should be allowed to stop eating when full – even if they still have food on their plate.

Tips for a Successful Start to Family Style Meals

  • Expect messes to happen and when they do, use it as an opportunity to learn about the responsibility of cleaning up.
  • Start with a family style snack or serve only the side-dishes in serving bowls at meals.
  • Allow children to be involved in all aspects of the meal (setting the table, meal preparation, serving themselves, passing foods and cleaning up after).
  • Use playtime to practice pouring and scooping skills (water and sand work well).

Family style meals may seem simple on the surface, but their impact can last a lifetime. It is a tool for your family to use in raising healthy, independent eaters by giving your child permission to listen to his internal cues about hunger and fullness.

Audra Losey MS RD

Registered Dietitian from UNL Extension

Audra Losey is a wife and mom of two young children. She is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in Community Nutrition and Health Promotion and dual bachelor degrees in Exercise Science and Dietetics. Audra is employed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Nutrition Education Program teaching limited resource families in Douglas and Sarpy counties about healthy eating on a budget. She's especially interested in teaching kids about food and physical activity, and connect ...

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