5 ways serving family-style saves the day and ends mealtime battles

Meals with our kids can be such a mission. You spend endless time shopping, cooking and serving and finally get everyone to the table. You dish everyone a plate of food, and then the drama begins.

I don’t like peas, you know that. I am not eating anything.
Why has he got more pasta than me?
Yuck this chicken looks disgusting and it is touching the rice (bearing in mind this is the food he asked for).

There’s a super easy trick to start doing RIGHT now. You don’t need to buy anything new or cook different things.
And this alone, along with removing pressure, changes the game.

So what is this trick?


In other words, place all the food in the middle of the table, and let kids help themselves.

Sounds like more of a mission or wondering why should it make a difference?

Serving food this way is often the difference between happy, calm meals and stressful, conflict filled meals. Here’s why:

  1. Autonomy. Little kids (age 2- 5) are very into being autonomous and if your child has an independent streak too, meal times can be hell. They don’t like anyone telling them what to do and are easily drawn into conflict. Seeing an offending food on their plate can drive them into a mood, and make them not want to eat at all. This way they have the chance to choose what they want, and the arena for conflict ends. They love being able to be independent, and feel so grown up.
  2. Expanding your picky eater’s palate. If you know your kid doesn’t like green beans, chances are you will stop serving them when you dish his plate of food up. He will never get the chance or opportunity to try them. But if you put them on his plate, it may offend him. Having the food available, with no pressure, in the middle of the table its neutral exposure. My son shocked me the other day when he served himself avocado (something he never ever eats).
  3. Helps your food-restricted child feel safe around food. Parents who are worried about their kid’s weight often try restricting their child by serving one portion, or saying “no seconds”. The child feels afraid of not getting enough, and responds by overeating at any given opportunity and/or becoming pre-occupied with food. Allowing the child to serve himself as much as he wants goes a long way to helping him feel that he can get enough. In the beginning he may take way too much, but overtime, if you don’t pressure him, he will begin tuning into his innate hunger and fullness cues. It also reassures him that there is a lot of food available. Here’s what happens if you go down the restricting route.
  4. Teaches manners. I have taught my kids to ask if anyone wants the last potato before they take it. They know how to say, please pass me the salad and how to say no thank you if offered a food. They are learning to not serve themselves the entire bowl of blueberries, and how to be considerate of everyone at the table.
  5. Let’s you actually sit and enjoy the meal. it takes a few more minutes to arrange but then I don’t need to get up to get seconds or thirds or anything else.  Usually, once I sit, I know I can just eat and enjoy everyone’s company.

How to start serving family style:

  1. Use small bowls for small kids. I usually take a few soup bowls out and dish up into there. Its easy for my kids ((age 6,4 & 2) to serve themselves, easy to pass around, and reduces waste. I fill them up if I need to.
  2. Offer to pass them things, and offer help if they want it. But no pressure! Some things like soup, I dish up. But for the most part, everything goes onto the table.
  3. Reassure them they don’t have to eat anything, and there is enough of everything to have their fill. This goes a long way in restoring trust if you have been restricting your child. It also helps a child trust you won’t be forcing him to eat or taste anything
  4. Add to the meal, don’t take away. Add  things to the meal – I usually cut a few fruit and vegetables up to add variety. It’s easy, quick and helps them find something they like. We want our kids to be successful at meals, and by adding variety it increases the chance of them finding something they want to eat.  My meal planning strategy is simple: at least one of every food group at dinner and go. Meals have weird un-matching components, but works for us.
  5. Trust,trust, trust. My son has taken to eating only pears for supper the last two nights. I have served meat, starch, cut up fruit and veggies (that’s a staple) and he seems to be wanting the pears. I am guessing his body needs the nutrients. I do my job, and he does his – even though it does worry me, I have learned to trust his body to eat very unpredictably and grow very predictably.
  6. The deconstructed dinner –  kids eat better (and have more fun) when they can customize their meals. These buffet-style recipes put the power of choice in their capable hands eg pasta, different sauces and toppings. Salad/ sandwich bar, burger bar, stir-fry evening are some fun ideas where everyone can be happy.


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