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

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


Giving kids safe freedom, letting them do what they can do, leads to better eating and better attitudes. - photo by Anna Migeon

“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.”

Hmmmmm. 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, and how much. 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 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.

“If the only way to make my own choice is to reject . . . 

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.

***

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

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Anna Migeon
    April 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Tell me more about that situation! How did it come about? Is it seven different sausages that he or she will eat or seven of the same kind every meal? Sounds interesting. At first glance, I think I would not make the sausages anymore. I would make a wide variety of other healthy foods at meals, the foods you think are good and nutritious, and act very nonchalant. Don’t try to make the child eat anything at all, ever, just present the foods. Not asking a child to eat anything is essential. I am assuming here that you serve regular meals at the table, that the child is not allowed to randomly snack between meals, and that he is required to join the family at the dinner table and to behave as you want him to at the table. If he is used to getting the sausages and demands them, I would maybe just say, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have any sausages today. Would you like to try the _____ or _____ that we are eating?” And leave it at that. Carry on a conversation about other things and do not pay any attention to what the child is eating. It’s very important to act perfectly casual. Leave the child alone so that he won’t lose face if he tries something else. Maybe leave the table for a few minutes on some pretext. He is going to be hungry without his sausages, so he may decide to give something a try if he’s not under any pressure. Let him do the worrying about whether he is hungry or not. Don’t let him see you are concerned whether or not he is. If he eats something, do not act like it’s a big deal that he ate something besides sausages. Remain nonchalant. You could ask him what he thought of the food he did try. You could talk about the food (interesting facts about it, what you like about it, what it is, its ethnic origins, how you made it, where you got it, what’s in it, what it tastes like or looks like), but not about his eating. If you think it necessary, you could make the change more gradually. Phase out the sausages a little at a time, so that he doesn’t have to starve too much and gets used to trying other food, if he is extremely attached to the sausages and stuck on the idea of eating nothing else.

  2. kate
    April 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    How do you manage the situation where someone just wants to eat 7 sausages and nothing else?

  1. May 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

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