Our #1 Defense Mechanism to Combat Picky Eating

Family meals are an unassuming but powerful way to transform your meal times from chaos to calm + combat picky eating at the same time!
A dining room table set for a family meal with pasta, sauce, and veggies.

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Initially, when I (Nita) had a young baby, I would plate his food for him. This made sense at the time and worked for us. Obviously, he didn’t have the ability to do this for himself yet!

But, as he entered toddlerhood and started to be more selective in his eating, mealtimes started to become rampant with negotiations, meltdowns, and sheer chaos because so many of us around the table weren’t getting our needs met. 

It wasn’t until I made one simple switch that we got our peaceful, relaxing mealtimes back!

Instead of pre-plating his food, I placed all the options on the table and allowed him to serve himself, with a bit of help of course. In other words, I switched to serving meals family-style. 

I realized I needed to allow my child to assert his own independence to select which foods he wanted on his plate. What an “aha” moment!  

Now that’s the real deal, and that feels really good!

Let’s break down family-style meals so that you can give it a test drive, too!

Women with long dark hair and glasses placing dinner on the table.

What Does it Mean to Serve Meals “Family-Style”?

Simply put, the idea behind family-style meals is that you present all of the components that make up your meal on the dinner table and allow each person to serve themselves (or with some assistance). This means, your starch, veggies, protein, beverage – and possibly a dessert – are displayed for your child to choose from. In other words, all foods you are comfortable with serving your child at that meal.

If you don’t have a formal dining space, you can always leave the dishes on a kitchen counter or on the stove. Just be mindful of safety. This looks like, “Mama’s going to pick you up, and can you point to let me know what you’d like on your plate? You get to choose!” Here, the essence of autonomy is still present. 

Next, you’re not pre-plating your child’s meal. Your child chooses what goes on his/her plate, and you are the assistant helping plate the food as your child picks. You can essentially start this around age 2 which is also when their communication starts to unfold even more! We realize this might feel like a risky ask…but here’s where we ask you to trust us. 

Toddlers and young children crave autonomy. It’s developmentally appropriate for them to want to assert their independence which means we have to be a bit more flexible and willing to let go of control. 

How Does This Help With Tackling Picky Eating?

You’re essentially removing all the pressure and inviting your child to decide what they want on their plate based on what you’ve served. Or, if they want anything at all. In short, there’s no negotiating involved! 

We know that pressure to eat (despite being well intended) is typically counterproductive and actually results in more food refusal, not less!

Eight Reasons For Serving Meals Family-Style

All foods presented are for everyone: Instead of falling into the trap of “here are the kid-friendly foods” (placed on a child’s plate) and “here are the adult-preferred foods” (pre-plated for yourself), when you place all foods on the table and allow each person to select what they’re interested in, it’s a simple invitation for your child to expand their food choices. 

You’re more likely to offer a typically accepted food: At every meal opportunity, you want to offer up an accepted food – across cultures, this is often the starch component of the meal. The accepted food is exactly that, a food that your child usually eats.  

This means if your child isn’t interested in anything else you’ve presented, they will likely be comfortable with the “accepted food” so you can rest assured they’re getting in some energy and nutrition. Here are examples of foods that may work for your family:

  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Roti, naan, pita, injera or any other flatbread 
  • Rice
  • Tortillas
  • Dumpling
  • Potatoes or sweet potato 
  • Corn
  • Bread

It helps your child assert independence: It’s generally faster or more efficient to do something for your child but the whole goal of parenting is teaching our kids skills to become fully independent adults! Passing over the responsibility of plating food is the first step in teaching our children how to procure and prepare food for themselves. 

You help your child develop and fine-tune their motor skills: It may sound silly, but it’s important for our little ones to master the art of pouring, scooping, balancing, and passing! You might be tempted to take the lead to avoid messes and spills, but do your best to put that aside during meal times.

Your child will learn manners: The time you spend around a dinner table has the power to instill lifelong values and skills into your children. Meal time is an opportunity for purposeful engagement and speech development, and it’s an opportune time to teach your child how to politely decline food, request additional portions, use words such as “please” and “thank you.”

You can also let your child know that they can’t monopolize any one food. For example, they can’t help themselves to all of the lobster, or all of the berries, or all of the buns. There needs to be enough to go around for others. 

It supports your child’s eating intuition: We’ve always been a huge proponent of the Division of Responsibility. This is where the care provider chooses what foods will be served, when they will be offered, and where (preferably around the dinner table). The feeding framework also identifies the child’s role, which is ultimately to decide if they are going to eat and how much they are going to eat. By serving meals family-style, you naturally lean into this beautiful philosophy and your child can eat intuitively. This sets your child up to be an intuitive eater for life.

It allows you to model healthy eating for your child: When your child sees you – the most important person in their life – make healthy eating decisions, like enjoying a variety of foods, it encourages your child to follow suit. It’s no secret that what you eat sets an important example for what your children will eat. If they see you selecting leafy greens from a salad bowl, they will be much more likely to choose leafy greens themselves over time.

Less food waste: this one is fairly self-explanatory, but you’re no longer putting food on your child’s plate that they aren’t going to eat anyways!

Is it All or None?

Like most things in life, there’s no absolute. You don’t have to serve meals family style every single time, every single day. If you’re just starting out, feel free to implement this a few days per week. 

I’m Sold - But How Exactly Do I Start With “Family-Style Meals”?

We’re glad to hear that we’ve won you over. To make things easier on you, we’ve come up with a 5-step method to rocking family-style meals. Here’s the rundown:

Step 1: Decide what you’re serving before dinnertime. You can even post a menu in your home that’s accessible to everyone.
Step 2: Ensure there are at least 1-2 typically accepted foods for your child.
Step 3: Place all of the components of the meal at the table or if your space doesn’t allow for it, on a kitchen counter.
Step 4: Let everyone plate their own meal. 
Step 5: Dine together in community!

We’re not in the toddler phase anymore, now that our kids are older, but we’re glad we had this “tool” of family dining in our toolkit to draw on during those wildly magical years. Let us know if family style dining is something you already practice as a family–if so, what do you enjoy about it most? And for those of you who are new to this concept, do you think you’re ready to give this a try?

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jess and nita, registered dietitians
Meet Jess and Nita

Hi! We’re both Dietitians & boy mamas! We’re here to help you confidently raise kids who will grow up to be lifelong Happy Healthy Eaters. Dig into our site for kid-tested recipes & feeding tips. 

1 thought on “Our #1 Defense Mechanism to Combat Picky Eating”

  1. Yes – family meals, when we can get around to them are a great fill your cup moment. The kids love the choices and thankfully our Indian food lends itself well to this.

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