How family-style meals can transform mealtimes

… and may even save your sanity

By Edwena Kennedy

Trying to accommodate a variety of eating preferences? Many families struggle with this. It could be you’re dealing with a picky eater, or perhaps someone has an allergy or intolerance. It could also be you have a wide variety of ages among family members (for example, a six-year-old, 16-year-old, two parents, and your mother-in-law), which makes it hard to serve something everyone wants to eat.

Whatever the case may be, planning only one meal that meets the demands of everyone becomes a seemingly impossible task. And the last thing you want to do is make multiple meals or become a short order cook for that one eater that doesn’t like what they’ve been served.

I used to battle quite a bit in my household with what to make. My husband was a real meat and potatoes man, with little liking for vegetables or salads. He also likes his food spicy. I preferred trying more unique foods with different flavour palates, most of it vegetable-based and always whole grain rice. My kids went through a phase where they basically only wanted to eat if it was a pizza, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, or fries… and no spinach, mushrooms, onions, etc. The list went on. I was at my wits end.
Until one day I noticed the only time my whole family enjoyed a meal was when it fell on one of my Mexican-themed food nights (i.e. tacos, burritos, quesadilla, etc.).

I realized these were the only nights I would serve food “family style,” that is, have all the components of the meal set out on the table as part of a spread and have each family member pass around the bowl of ingredients. This allowed everyone to serve themselves what they wanted.

After contemplating this for a day, I decided I would tweak my meals plans a bit and try incorporating more meals where I could just lay out different fixings and have each person build their own meal.

For example, things like build-your-own pizza, sandwiches, and taco nights worked well. I would still make meals like “salmon with dill sauce”, but would separate the salmon, serve the dill sauce on the side as optional and let everyone build their own salads and choose the dressing. Mixed meals such as casseroles I would still incorporate, but I made sure to include a few side options my family could choose from should they not want the main. For example, a side of peas, rolls, shredded cheese, and fruit.

Turned out, serving meals family style had benefits beyond just saving my sanity. As I became more and more fascinated with family and pediatric nutrition and feeding strategies, I discovered the research on this was bountiful. Family-style meals work for several reasons, including:

Eliminating catering to children. Catering encourages picky eating and prevents exposure they desperately need to new food.

Encouraging a respect for your child’s appetite, such as allowing your child to choose food amounts right for him/her based on their hunger levels. All to often, we overshoot portion sizes.

Providing young children with opportunities to hone their motor skills, such as balance, passing platters, holding bowls, and scooping food. For children under the age of five years, parents can hold the platters and bowls for their child and walk around behind them, asking if they would like some of such and such, and how much.

Exposing children to food they may otherwise not experience. For example, when passing items around the table, all options get handed around, and each child holds, looks at a food and can smell it up close. This is a big deal for kids that won’t let a particular food near them in any capacity. Even if your picky eater snubs the broccoli, he still needs to be polite and pass it around, exposing himself to the food in the meantime.

Providing opportunities to learn and practice their table manners, such as please, thank you, and other courtesies, as well as patience.

Overall, family-style meals create a positive atmosphere, encouraging kids to feel in control without overstepping boundaries, to try more food, and more peaceful meals without pressure to eat something particular.

Here are some tips for creating family-style meals to please all taste buds and make it work for you.

• Make sure to include all food groups in the spread: meat or other protein such as fish, beans, tofu, etc.; a high-fibre carbohydrate source such as whole grain rice, pasta, bread, sweet potatoes, etc.; at least one or two types of fruit, vegetable, or both; and a dairy like cheese or milk.

• Have things like salad dressings, gravies, condiments, even certain spices and herbs separate from the main meal and allow each family member to add what and how much they like.

• When you introduce new foods, also offer something familiar that everyone likes and can fill up on. I typically recommend having at least a roll of bread or plain rice that family members can eat in case they don’t like the “new” food.

• Make mealtimes pleasant. Enjoy a good conversation and never scold or fight with someone to eat. Your job is to choose what and when your family eats and it’s up to them to choose if and what they eat.

• Don’t let the fear of having to wash multiple dishes get the best of you. Go ahead and place pots and pans directly on the table (be careful if they’re still hot) and serve each other directly from them if the thought of multiple dishes to wash that night is too much.

These days, I recommend family-style meals to pretty much all my clients, because it works every time. It’s not magic by any means, but as a long-term means of decreasing mealtime anxiety and giving children back a sense of control, it’s pretty amazing. If this isn’t already part of your family mealtime ritual, try this at home. Your family may like it!

Edwena Kennedy is the registered pediatric dietitian and mom of two behind My Little Eater, an online course platform with multiple courses to help parents raise happy, healthy eaters from ages six months to 12 years. Sign up for her free resource, 25 lunch ideas for your school-aged child. She lives in Halifax and loves to travel with her family, try cuisines from all over the world, and does interior decorating in her spare time.

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