‘Family style’ or ‘buffet style’ family meals can reduce mealtime stress, help with fussy eating and help your kids regulate hunger and fullness. It’s been an absolute meal time game-changer for the families and me I work with. And it could be for you too!
HAVE YOU HEARD OF FAMILY STYLE MEALS?
Serving your family meals ‘family style’ or ‘buffet style’ means putting your food into bowls or serving dishes and placing it on the table so your family can help themselves.
It allows you, the parent, to take charge of When and What food is served and allows your child to control whether and How Much they eat of this food. This ‘Division of Responsibility’ makes for competent eaters and more enjoyable family meals.
I ALWAYS SERVE MEALS THIS WAY
Although this isn’t how meals were served in my home growing up, I started with my own family a few years ago, and once I realised the many benefits. And now, I rarely plate up any food.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF FAMILY-STYLE MEALS?
It’s easier and saves time!
If you don’t have much counter space and lots of mouths to feed like me, it’s much simpler to put the food on the table rather than trying to find space to dish up each meal.
It cuts down on moaning.
Often mealtime complaints start as soon as your child sees their plate, ‘I hate peas, why did you put them on my plate’, this can get the meal off to a bad start, it’s challenging to come back from. Putting the food on the table for children to choose from eliminates this problem.
It offers food exposure without pressure.
It allows you to model healthy eating. Fill your plate up with veggies first, then add a protein and a carbohydrate. You can encourage everyone to put some of each food on their plate, but don’t push it. I generally opt for saying nothing and get on with enjoying my meal. Another tactic to increase food exposure is to allow your child to fill your plate for you. Or to get them to pass you the food. That way, they’re getting up close to the look, smell and even texture of the food without actually having to put it on their own plate.
‘One Family, One Meal’ rather than separate meals.
Make sure to have at least one food on the table that your child will eat. For example, when my eldest doesn’t like when mixed meals like spaghetti bolognese so it makes sense to serve the pasta separately to the meat sauce. If all else fails, add some bread, milk or fruit to the table. Over the week, there will be meals that children don’t like, that’s OK, but it’s important to keep them included in family dinners. They can make up the nutrients at another meal or on another day!
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It encourages kids to listen to their hunger and fullness cues.
Your child controls how much they want to eat at each meal. Remember, your child’s appetite fluctuates from meal to meal and day today. This way, they can take a little and top up with more if they’re still hungry. Just work out how much to cook but looking at the recommended serving sizes of the foods and working it out for the whole family.
It teaches respect and table manners.
You can teach your children to be considerate of others in the family. They may take an extra serving of food only if everyone else has had their fair share.
It cuts down on food waste.
Ever feel like you’re continually scraping uneaten food from plates into the bin? Family Style Service cuts down on this; wrap up leftover food for another day.
It helps with coordination and motor skills.
What child doesn’t like scooping and pouring?! Sometimes novelty alone will encourage your child to put otherwise un-liked foods on their plate. They may still not eat them but voluntarily placing them on the plate is an important step towards acceptance. Invest in some little tongs and serving foods.
ARE YOU SCEPTICAL ABOUT SERVING MEALS BUFFET-STYLE?
It’s OK, and you’re not alone! When I share this concept on my social media platforms, I often get scepticism about how this family-style approach works in practice. Here are some of the most common questions parents ask:
What if my child only eats their favourite food?
It’s quite probable that your child will only eat their favourite food. But remember, it’s up to you to decide WHAT food goes on the table. So, while you must include at least one food on the table that your child likes, it doesn’t have to be the same favourite food every day. One day that favourite food might be bread, and all your child eats is bread. Another day, it’s yoghurt, and all your child eats is yoghurt—another fruit, another chicken and so on. So, even though your child may only eat their favourite food at each sitting, if you vary this food over the week they’ll still end up eating a balanced diet!
What if they take all the food and leave no for anyone else?
So, you put a bowl of strawberries on the table, and one of your kids tries to put them ALL onto their plate. That’s where your family dinner rules come in. It’s up to your children to pick and choose what to put on their plate. But, it’s also important that they respect that everyone is entitled to take their share. While it’s not up to you to micromanage your child’s food intake at mealtimes, it is up to us to help foster good table manners and kindness at the table.
How do I know how much food to put on?
Just cook the portions that you normally make for your family. It’s no different to plating up the meals in this respect. If you run out of food, then that’s OK. If there’s more food easily available, like more bread that you can add to what’s on the table, then that’s fine too.
What about if they won’t put the vegetables on their plate?
If you want to stay true to the concept of the Division of Responsibility, then you have to be OK with this! It’s YOUR job to decide what foods go on the table, and it’s up to YOUR CHILD what food they decide to put on their plate. You can encourage them to put a little of everything on their plate (divided plates work well here), but you shouldn’t force it or pressure them into tasting the food. Also, console yourself with the fact that even if they’re not putting the vegetables on their plate, they’re still benefitting from seeing vegetables regularly and from watching you enjoying them. Because my kids aren’t big vegetable eaters, I often put out fruit at dinner time too. That way, they get the exposure they need from the vegetables and the same nutrition from the fruit they eat.
ARE YOU READY TO LET YOUR KIDS SERVE THEMSELVES?
You certainly don’t have to serve every meal this way. In our family, I serve most of our meals this way but do whatever works best for you. You won’t know till you try!
Check out my Feeding Your Toddler Course for more steps towards successful and enjoyable mealtimes.
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