Why should I serve my children’s meals family style?

Have you ever thought about the way you serve meals to your children? Have you ever considered a different serving style? Do you plate up your child’s food before serving it to them, or do you place food in the middle of the table and then serve them, or do you let them serve themselves? Do you do a mixture of these things? Have you ever considered that the way you serve your children’s food can have an impact on what they eat, how much they eat, and their relationship with food? Its these little things that we do as parents that can have such different impacts on our children and their ability to develop healthy food relationships.

What is family style serving?

You might already be serving foods family style without realising it, but perhaps you don’t do this all of the time. For example when you cook a roast dinner for the family you might place the meat, vegetables, potatoes and other trimmings all in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves. Similarly your celebratory meals where you gather the family together to eat might look like this with lots of different foods on the table for everyone to choose and help themselves. Family style serving is a method where all components of the meal are served on the table allowing everyone to help themselves. Food may be placed in various serving dishes in the middle of the table where everyone can reach and choose what they want, and how much they want from the options available.

The pros and cons of family style serving

Lets start with some of the cons that people might worry about when serving food family style. If you have young children can you really expect them to serve themselves? Of course you can! Young children are perfectly capable of helping themselves to food even if they do need a little support to do this. You might let them just get stuck in and help themselves, or if there’s hot food or food that requires cutting with a sharp knife, you will need to help with this. You might take the approach of bringing the serving dishes to them, loading the spoons and then letting them put what they want on their plate from that spoon. However you let young children serve themselves, it is really important to give them this opportunity to learn to serve themselves.

But what about the mess? Yes there is likely to be more mess serving food in this way, even adults can make a mess serving themselves. But forget about the mess, it can be cleaned up, and the benefits of letting children serve themselves in this way helps them with their co-ordination and fine motor skills, and far outweighs the negatives.

What if my child doesn’t put any vegetables on their plate? It doesn’t matter because as they learn to trust these foods, see them at the table everyday, watch others eating and enjoying them, they will start to learn to like their vegetables, and they will start putting them on their plate.

So what are the benefits? Firstly do you remember your plate being loaded up by your parents, a meal being served to you, and you had to eat that meal or you couldn’t leave the table, or you couldn’t have pudding, or watch TV etc. What feelings do you have around those memories? I’m going to guess negative ones. Did this enable you to enjoy your food, have positive feelings around food, decide which foods you liked and disliked, enabled you to be aware of your own feelings of hunger or fullness?  Now what if your parents had let you decide which parts of that meal you were going to eat, and how much of it you were going to eat? On some days do you think you would have eaten more than others because you were hungrier on some days than others, or your routine was a bit different that day, or you weren’t feeling great on some days. Family style serving allows children to have positive mealtime experiences where they have the freedom to eat what and how much they want from what you have provided, which is particularly helpful when you have a fussy eater. It also helps to teach social mealtime norms for example table manners, taking turns and saying please and thank you – Win win!

Your child will recognise their own hunger and fullness cues

What you think is an appropriate portion for your child, might not be. Some days your child might finish what you give them, and other days they eat very little. This is because appetite and hunger is affected my so many different factors, and depending on those factors will depend on how much your child wants to eat that day. It is called self regulation and allowing them to be tuned into their own hunger cues, allows them to eat the amount that they need, and build healthier relationships with food. By consistently encouraging your child to eat more than they want to doesn’t help them to be aware of their own hunger and fullness cues, and your child loses all sense of this. Appetite dysregulation can cause problems in both the short and long term.

Your child will try new foods

Family style serving actually encourages children to try new foods because the pressure is off. Anxiety and pressure at mealtimes leads to children associating negative feelings with mealtimes or certain foods and this can switch off their appetite, and they don’t want to eat. This is one of the main causes of fussy eating.  By putting a food on your child’s plate that they do not want to eat, causes a child to feel pressure. Then when their parent encourages them to eat that food it is pressure. Then when they don’t eat that food and their parent becomes upset that is pressure. Then if they do it and the parent gives them lots of praise, that is pressure when they don’t want to eat it the next time because they don’t want to upset their parents.

When food is served family style, your child is in charge of whether they put that new food on their plate or not, how much of it they put on their plate, and whether they actually eat it or not. This feeling of being in control, allows a child the opportunity to be exposed to food, and learn to like foods without any pressure. Learning to eat is not just about putting food in your mouth an swallowing. A child doesn’t just get up one day and walk. They experience each step of the walking process before getting there. It’s the same with food. The see the shopping for food, preparation of food, see the food on the table, they can smell it, see what it feels like with their hands, with their tongue, biting the food, watch other people eating and enjoying the food. All of these experience are steps towards a child trying, swallowing and enjoying a food. Even trying a food might be a failure at first and they have to keep trying a food before they learn to like it. Remember a child has a lot more taste buds than us, and so food tastes very different to them. By taking away a food that is refused a few times, you are not allowing your child to learn to enjoy that food, and so they never get the chance.

Your child will learn independence

Children are learning new things and experiences all of the time, and they want to do things for themselves. It might not always be ok to let them try to do everything they see themselves for example when my older daughter teaches the little one to jump of walls, but children do enjoy that independence to do things for themselves. Children do not make good choices, again that is all part of learning safety, boundaries, health etc, and it is our job as parents to teach them to become independent and make good choices. When it comes to family style serving, you have decided as the parent when they are going to eat, where they are going to eat, and what the meal is. It is then time to allow your child the independence of deciding what they are going to eat from the options, and how much. If they have that sense of control you are less likely to have upset and tantrums at the table, and help your child have positive experiences around food.

So how do you do it?

  • Meal planning is key. Let the whole family get involved with meal planning, allowing some of everyone’s favourite foods throughout the week, and ensure a good balance of foods. Usually a good rule of thumb is to include a good source of protein, carbohydrate, some iron and calcium rich foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Get the kids excited about cooking, and make food interesting by trying new recipes. You can serve some full cooked meals like a fish pie with a variety of vegetables, simple meals like pizza, chips, salad and fruit, or you can do meals that don’t need to be cooked such as sandwiches, salad, chopped veg and dips.  If you are stuck on what a healthy balanced meal should look like the NHS has some really useful information The Eatwell Guide – NHS (www.nhs.uk).
  • Place all the food in the centre of the table in serving dishes that enable everyone to help themselves. Younger children may need some help with hot food/dishes, or anything heavy, so give them a hand where you need to. Consider different sized utensils to help the kiddies serve themselves.
  • You can encourage your child to try a bit of everything without any pressure. If you ask them if they would like to try something and they refuse then that is ok. This is a good opportunity to teach those “yes pleases” and “no thank you’s”.

If you would like to learn more about how to raise children who enjoy eating and have healthy relationships with food, find more articles on my blog, or more information of my social media pages. If you have concerns that you would like to discuss with me in more depth please see my website for details of the services I can offer www.the-childrens-dietitian.com.

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