Will family style meals help my child eat more?

Have you ever thought about how you serve a meal? Family style meals are very different to what we traditionally do.

Most of us will cook and pre-plate our children’s food. It’s cultural, it’s the way most of us have always done it, but it’s not backed in science and it could be doing more harm to your children’s psychology of eating, than good.

What is family style serving?

Family style meals are when you present all the component parts of a meal in separate serving dishes in the centre of the table, a bit like a ‘serve yourself buffet,’ and each member of the family –  including young toddlers, serve themselves, deciding what they want and how much they’re going to eat. 

Hang on, did you say toddlers can do family style meals?

Yes! And it’s actually really important that they do. 

As parents we have a pre-determined idea about amount of food that we think our children should be eating, but it’s nearly always WAY MORE than they actually need. And when we pre-plate we are showing them this.

But when toddlers are faced with a big plate of food and can’t eat it we have a tendency to worry if they’ve had enough and encourage them to eat a bit more.

However this causes appetite dysregulation. What happens is they lose all sense of their hunger and fullness cues.

What are the benefits of serving family style meals?

It’s part of being a positive food parent allowing your child the freedom to eat from what you’ve made available with the knowledge that they can go back for more if they are still hungry.

It teaches appetite regulation

It allows them to eat according to their own body’s needs, observing their appetite signals and not the amount you want them to eat, which is what pre-plating meals tells them.

Babies are born with a natural self regulation of food (or milk) based on their appetite, and will tend to only eat what their bodies need. 

As they get older children may have lost this ability, particularly if they have been pressured to eat if they went through a fussy phase. 

But family style serving can help them get this back. 

It helps your child try new food

I know this is what you wanted to read. Let me explain what’s happening here. Children who are less adventurous eaters will be resistant when you put new food on their plates. 

They feel this as pressure to eat it, even if you don’t say anything! 

Their anxiety levels will rise and this could lead to a mealtime meltdown.

Serving family style meals means that this pressure is off. 

Your child will still have exposure to the food (absolutely key with fussy eaters) but the expectation to actually eat that food is lower, so their anxiety levels are lower too.

We practice SOS Feeding Therapy, and there are 32 independent sensory steps to eating a food and just seeing the food across the table is one. Smelling the food from a distance is another and if that food makes a noise (think sizzling) that’s a third.

Children have to progress through these 32 sequential steps for every single food before they decide to eat it. And when they have been exposed to the food in a low pressure way, they become more curious about that food, especially when they watch others eating (and enjoying) it.

a person helping themselves to a dish of sweetcorn kernals

It allows for independence and choice

It allows them to make guided choices and independence and is a cornerstone of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding where the parent provides and the child decides.

And toddlers and young children thrive on independence (it’s a brain development) meaning you’re less likely to have drama and tantrums at mealtimes.

It encourages intuitive eating

Serving family style meals helps children learn to eat intuitively as they choose how much to put on their plates based on what they fancy from what’s on offer.

If you think about it, as adults we do this every single time we eat. We choose to cook what we think we will want to eat.

We need to let your children learn this skill too.

Remember, they are learning and they will make mistakes, particularly at the start, but use mealtimes as an opportunity to remind your child to take only what they think they can manage and reassure them that they can have seconds.

It teaches healthy eating without words

I never ever suggest talking about what’s healthy or not healthy during a mealtime. Meals are not an opportunity for nutrition education using words, and that’s because words have emotions attached. Negative emotions that are linked to eating ‘performance’  (guilt, shame, feeling bad or sad) cause a spike in adrenaline which switches appetite off dead.

Be a good role model by plating up your meal in a healthy way. Every meal therefore will become a visual reminder to your whole family about what a balanced plate should look like.

It allows them to practice their fine motor skills

Scooping the peas and getting them all on your plate, using tongs to pick up roast potatoes, passing (and balancing) plates and bowls from one family member to the next, all involve coordinating your child’s muscles in a certain way. 

This fine motor muscle coordination can really help them feel capable and independent in all aspects of their life. 

It teaches table manners

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you will know that I advocate playing with your food because interacting with food helps children learn to like new food. So I’m not talking about those manners that your strict dinner lady at school used to insist upon.

What family style serving does is teach your child about taking turns, waiting patiently, saying please and thank you as dishes are passed around. Which is lovely! I think you’ll agree.

It shows that you respect that they are in charge of their own body

Allowing your child to self serve, teaches them that they are in charge of their own bodies, but importantly, that you respect that. 

It reduces food waste

From a practical point of view, your family only takes what they can manage therefore in theory you should have less food waste. Refrigerate and serve for lunch the following day, much nicer than a soggy sandwich!

mum serving food to her children at home

How to actually do family style meals

Plan your meals in advance so that all 5 of the food groups (from the Eat Well Guide) are represented in the meal. This will help ensure balanced nutrition and show your child what a balanced meal looks like without saying a word!

  • Ensure that at every meal there is at least one or two food items that each member of the family likes, especially if your child is fussy. This is important so they they come to the table confident that there will always be something for them, even if it’s just the bread rolls!
  • Present the food in proper portion sizes for your children, so cut up meat into child sized portions, present rice in little mountains, make little salad bowls containing the right amount of veggies presented in a lettuce leaf. This shows the child what ‘one of’ looks like and helps them learn about portion size.
  • Place all the food in serving dishes in the centre of the table – it’s fine to use fun coloured plates or bowls or your favourite crockery! 
  • Have a big spoon and a little spoon, children can then decide if they want a proper portion or just a tiny taste on their plate.
  • Allow your child to serve themselves to the portion they would like, pass dishes around and take turns. Younger children may need help with the heavy lifting and it could be messy, but that’s fine, they’re children and this is a process that they are learning. 
  • Encourage them to try everything on offer but don’t put pressure on them. Teach your child how to refuse food with a ‘no thank you’ and respect their decision. They don’t have to have everything on offer if they don’t want to.

Family style meals wont work for us because…

I get it! It sounds lovely but not do-able. Here are some of the frequently asked questions we get about family style meals.

family sat eating food from the table

My child doesn’t like what we’ve provided

Remember my motto ‘parents provide, child decides?’ This means that what you’ve popped on the table is what’s for dinner, end of.  

If you’ve followed the steps above, you know that your child won’t go hungry. 

If (until now) you’ve been providing ‘rescue meals’ when they don’t eat dinner, you may have a few days of poor eating because your child will be expecting that rescue meal to come next. Children who have regular rescue meals, unfortunately don’t move out of the fussy eating stage and their food range gets smaller and smaller. 

Sometimes we see nutritional deficiencies which stem from eating the same few foods over and over. 

So, stick to your plan, remember you are the parent so you get to choose the menu, the timing and where the food is served. Your child has to decide whether to eat it or not, and what the consequences of not eating are.

My child is too young to serve themselves

Honestly you’d be amazed at what even 18-month-olds can manage!

And it’s totally ok to give them some help. Hold the platter and offer them the spoon, or if they still struggle you can spoon the food onto their plate for them, but ask them to tell you ‘more’ or ‘done.’  

My child will only eat the dessert and nothing else

If family style serving is new to you, it’s likely that dessert has always been served at the end of the meal, and your child might not even know what it is until that point. By serving food this way you’ve unintentionally made dessert desirable and exciting.

And children have a high desire for sweet food, its present at birth (and is a survival mechanism to help them seek out the breast) but it stays with them right through their childhood and adolescence.

So when dessert is placed on the buffet style table, along with everything else, children are naturally drawn to want to eat this first. Whether it’s a chocolate brownie or a punnet of raspberries.

This is why I suggest serving foods in appropriate portions so your child gets to know what ‘one of’ looks like. It also means that once they eat their dessert first, it’s gone. They can’t possibly have filled up yet and there are plenty of other foods on offer.

My child will only eat the bits they like and won’t try anything else.

Going back to the ‘parent provides, child decides’ you’ll know that this is OK. Let your child decide which foods they want and let them learn the consequences of that. 

They’re not going to starve as long as you’re offering food as part of a structured and predictable routine. 

They will know when the next meal or snack time will be and will likely do better then. 

Don’t make comments about what your child chooses or how much they’ve chosen, this involves feelings of ‘doing it wrong’ and puts pressure on the mealtimes, causing that adrenaline spike and switching appetite off. 

My child loves carbs and will take all the potatoes and not leave enough for everyone else

Another reason why I recommend presenting the food in appropriate portion sizes.  

If your child has been restricted in terms of what they’ve been allowed to eat (we sometimes see this happen in children who are carrying extra weight), they often become focused on food and tend to load up their plates. 

Remind them that there is enough to go around, that this meal is for sharing and that they can have seconds after everyone else has had their share.

family sharing a pizza

My child doesn’t know how to make a balanced meal

That’s true! Kids have terrible nutritional knowledge, and it takes almost their entire childhoods to learn. That’s why it’s parents who decide on the menu.

Never ask your kids what they want for dinner! Children will always ask for the food they like, which is often either the sweeter foods, or the foods that are easy to eat, don’t require cutlery and don’t need much chewing.

Trying to teach young children about healthy eating will fall on deaf ears. Nutrition is an abstract concept which is why it isn’t taught until secondary school. Younger children associate healthy food with ‘not very tasty’ or ‘just for adults’ so your best to avoid this topic till they’re much older,

The best way for children to learn is by watching how you eat. You are their role model and so make sure your plate of food is balanced.

You might be interested in how family style serving works in our house, after all we’ve been doing it for 11 years since my children were 2 and 4. Here’s a link to a behind the scenes story of the our family mealtimes.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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