I am always reflecting on the best ways to help cautious eaters learn to enjoy meals, and teaching parents about serving food 'family style' is a powerful strategy in my arsenal.
Before I leap in, let me clarify what I mean by family style meals. It's not an expression we use widely in the UK, but in the US, feeding specialists use it to refer to the practice of having all the elements of a meal in serving dishes in the middle of the table, with everyone getting to serve themselves. It's the opposite of a meal that arrives in front of your child plated up, and is an approach that many experts recommend for picky eaters.
I haven't always been a family style fan; I used to keep it in reserve as a strategy for only the most limited of eaters. But since having my thinking challenged - initially in a conversation over a coffee with super knowledgeable child feeding expert and registered dietitian, Natalia Stasenko - I started to see things differently.
The biggest factor in my conversion to the family style approach has been the results I've seen in my clinical work. It really is a game changer. As I began recommending it to families where mealtimes were stressful but eating issues were not extreme, I saw it bringing parents amazing results again and again and again.
These days, I recommend it to pretty much all my clients, because it works every time. Not in a wand-waving, miraculous kind of way, but as a long term means of decreasing mealtime anxiety and giving children back a sense of control. Of course, it isn't enough in itself to bring about change when you're managing complex feeding issues, but it's a great place to start.
Three social and emotional benefits of food family style
1. Your child will practice turn taking - with family style meals, there is a lot of 'please pass the potatoes' and waiting while big sis loads her plate up. It's actually really positive for children to learn that good things come to those who wait; with every meal, your child will be getting better and better at waiting politely and understanding that we don't always get our needs met instantly.
2. Your child will learn about being considerate to others - when you serve family style, everyone naturally begins to think about whether there is enough left for everyone at the table; whether all family members have had what they want; whether grandma can reach the tomatoes... this is so great for the development of social skills. Equally, your child will learn so much from watching you being considerate during meals, and this will spill into other areas of life. It's a powerful message: we don't just think of ourselves, we check that everyone else has what they need.
3. Family style meals encourage social interaction - each time your child looks up from their plate to ask for something to be passed or to pass a dish to someone else, this is a mini interaction! They are engaging with other people around the table and strengthening their social skills at every turn. This has an knock-on benefit where picky eaters are concerned, as the more the focus moves towards the social (and away from what and how a child is eating), the better children will eat.
Give family style meals a try in your house - it's a simple strategy that can make a huge difference.