The Little Miracle of ‘Family Style’ Meals: How It Helps Kids be Less Picky

Apr 5, 2012 by

“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.

Related posts:

Foolish Freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat, even to the point of harming themselves

Emerson and the Calf, or one good reason kids refuse to eat

2 comments
Sara
Sara

My 4-year-old son ate two huge platefuls of plain spaghetti noodles the first time we let him serve himself. It was very hard for both my husband and I to keep from to suggesting that he have some sauce, meatballs, and green beans (all foods he normally likes). But you should have seen his face when I suggested he start with a smaller amount on his second round of noodles. He looked hurt! I apologized. He knew exactly what and how much he wanted to eat, and he ate it all. I realized how absurd it was that I try to tell him how much to put on his plate. I understand that he is going through something of a liberation by eating only noodles and eventually he will want to branch out and try new things. So I am not going to worry about it. He'll figure out that the other food on the table is yummy too. And I am learning that it's ok to put the sauce in with the noodles. Hahaha! I think the learning process is harder for the parents than the children. At least it is for us!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Sara, Thanks so much for telling me about your experience!! I think we as parents should be extremely minimal in our interference with kids' actual eating, but I wouldn't hesitate to very casually and just once OFFER to pass him some other food, with zero pushiness or urging: "Would you like any sauce or meatballs with your noodles?" I think we can offer food to kids the way we offer food to guests: would you like any? without serving it already on his plate, insisting AT ALL or telling him he has to eat it. I'm also not against pulling food away from kids, as you did with suggesting a smaller amount for the second round of noodles. Kids can have "eyes bigger than their stomachs," and I think saying something like, "are you sure you want all that?" or "Don't take more than you can eat" puts value on the food. You could even say, "Save some for the rest of us! We want some, too!" It creates the idea of something good that we like and want, instead of being the thing we have to defend ourselves against because Mom and Dad are making me eat. It think it's also OK once in awhile if you really think a young child is making a pig of himself, and gorging, to gently say something like, "You have probably had enough, don't you think?" Kids do that sometimes (as we all do). Pulling away is good in many instances; it can often create more desire to eat. It's the pushing that is really destructive in getting kids to eat. It creates resistance. I do think your son will get used to the freedom of serving himself and start focusing on what and how much he really wants to eat as he settles into that role. It is hard to let go of control, but have faith! Your son's appetite is a great tool--the best one! I'm excited to hear from you and I hope you can come to the workshop on May 5!