The Little Miracle of ‘Family Style’ Meals: How It Helps Kids be Less Picky
“I know I should serve them family style, and usually I do,” Debra, a mom of a picky eater, told me when I visited her house on a Supper Nanny visit. “But since this is something new tonight I knew they wouldn’t want to eat it, so I plated it up.”
Debra was talking about using serving dishes and passing them around for kids to dish up their own food, “family style,” versus placing filled plates in front of each child.
Hmmmmm. When kids might not want to eat is exactly the time NOT to plate it up, I thought to myself.
I was at Debra’s house for the second time to help her figure out what she could do to get picky Jonathan to eat something beyond the ten meals she was cooking. This serving of filled plates was one of the problems. Or rather, the evidence of a deeper problem: the real problem.
Serving Dishes: The Instrument of Backing Off
“Why would anyone put the food on their children’s plates for them?” I wondered the first time I saw Debra putting full plates in front of her kids. They were old enough to be capable of serving themselves. In my follow-up recommendations, filling her kids’ plates for them was one of the first items on my list of things to change. Back off; pass the food around in serving dishes and let them serve themselves. Let their appetite lead them to reach for the food. Let their stomachs tell them how much they wanted. If they are free to eat or not, they are more likely to eat. She tried it and was amazed.
“No screaming – just happy quiet eating,” she reported to me later. ” Jonathan even served himself a tomato!!!!! And ate it!!!! We almost passed out!”
Yet here she was, slipping back into her old ways. It’s hard for a pusher to back off. It’s hard to trust the kids and trust their appetites to do the job.
Subtle – or not so Subtle- Pressure: Plating Up Food
Debra’s comment about plating up the food because she was afraid they wouldn’t want it clarified in my mind exactly why anyone would serve their kids’ plates for them: it’s a way of trying to make them eat. And trying to make kids eat is always a bad idea. Filling their plates is a form of pushing that will generally only lead to more resistance. So we talked about it again and she agreed to get back to family style.
You want to back off, give a picky child freedom to approach a new food on his own, not feel forced and pressured. Serving a resistant child a full plate of food is a good way to get more resistance, even if it’s something they do want to eat. An oppositional child like Debra’s six-year-old Jonathan practically has to say no to a plate full of food shoved under this nose. I can’t say I blame him.
The next week, Debra talked about the changes she was making at her dinner table and the good results she was getting when she was at lunch with the other fourth-grade moms. One of the main insights she shared with them was serving family style. Apparently she’s not the only one who needed to hear it.
“Another mom just texted me that she tried family style dining and it was a huge success!” Debra told me that night. “Her kids ate rutabagas!”
In response to my suggestions to back off with picky kids, yet another mom, Robin, told a similar tale of giving picky kids some room to take charge of their own eating by using serving dishes.
“We tried something new this week — instead of making the kids’ plates (my older kids are four and two), I put all the food out on nice serving dishes. My husband and I said grace and served ourselves, leaving the kids’ plates empty. After about 45 seconds of watching us eat, each one asked for something, and ended up eating a balanced meal — I think we had steak, roasted asparagus, and mashed sweet potatoes. I think they ate because they had agency to choose each thing — rather than being served, and using their agency to reject, the only option left open if we had done things the usual way.”
Family Style Revolution: The Old-Fashioned Way to Be a Cool Parent
I was almost as astonished as Debra. Not that serving family style worked, but that the idea was such a revelation. If I hadn’t visited Debra’s house, I wouldn’t have thought to tell parents to serve family style. I took it for granted. It’s what my mom always did and what I always did. I wouldn’t have thought anybody needed to be told to let children serve themselves.
But serving family style is a stunningly simple and effective way to give children some freedom that they should rightfully have. It lets them do for themselves what they can. It’s a safe freedom that leads to better eating and better attitudes. It gives kids independence and self-mastery, which can lessen their resistance to eating.
It also gives parents an active alternative to pushing and urging children to eat. Nothing tricky, nothing manipulative, nothing complicated and tiresome. Just dish up the food and pass it around, and don’t bug the kids. It’s pure masterly inactivity: a wisely passive, purposeful leaving alone. It’s an action to counter the urge to over control. It gives anxious parents something to do concretely different and better. It gives them a job that keeps them from working so hard so they can get better results. It keeps the parent out of the way of the child’s natural appetite.
Anna Migeon is the author of The Happy Dinner Table: The Path to Healthy, Harmonious Family Meals, available on Amazon.