Have you ever given much thought to which style of serving meals might be best for your kids when it comes to their nutrition and overall health? Growing up, I remember being served food pre-plated. I was always allowed to take more if I was still hungry—and I usually did! I have continued with this tradition with my own sons who are now ages 15 and 12.
At breakfast and dinner, I pre-plate my kids' food with an amount I think each of them will eat based on their age and stage. Sometimes they eat everything on their plates, and sometimes they leave food over. Either way, if they finish their meal and want more of something—whether that's more milk at breakfast or some dessert after dinner—they're allowed to help themselves.
Although I'll serve food family-style during holidays and when we entertain friends or family, I find a pre-plated style of feeding typically works best for my family, especially on nights when we can't eat dinner together because of conflicting after-school schedules. Sometimes simply heating up a fresh meal that's been pre-plated and refrigerated can streamline the process of getting my kids fed. Fortunately, both of my sons eat pretty well, seldom overeat and are at healthy body weights.
Although pre-plating works for my family, many experts suggest a family-style approach to eating may be a better and more empowering way to feed growing children and prevent obesity—especially the 12 million U.S. preschool children in child care programs. In a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Illinois researchers surveyed 118 child-care providers who work at Head Start, Adult Care Food Program [CACFP] and other programs about their feeding practices for 2- to 5-year old children. Researchers found that while most who worked at Head Start met the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' recommendation to serve foods and beverages family-style—where children select their own portions and serve themselves—most CACFP (66%) and non-CACFP (93%) providers did not.
In the study, the researchers note that serving meals family-style gives children control over the type and amount of food on their plates and helps them self-regulate their energy intakes they learn to put the right amount of food on their plate based on their internal hunger and satiety signals. They also suggest that a family-style approach to feeding increases the ability of teachers to model healthy eating compared with pre-plated service. And because there's evidence that eating behaviors are already established by school age, the researchers underscore how important it is for adults to help children establish healthy habits during their preschool years.
According to Linda C. Whitehead, Ph.D., Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, "Family-style dining allows teachers and children to enjoy a meal together in a calm, respectful atmosphere. The table is typically set with child-size plates, cups, and serving bowls. Children are encouraged to not only help set the table, but to serve themselves, pass dishes to their friends and clean up afterwards." When asked about the benefits of family-style dining, Whitehead says, "The relaxed atmosphere encourages rich conversation and social interactions. Children learn appropriate behaviors, such as turn taking and using words, such as "please" and "thank you." It also boosts self-confidence and independence, teaches children mathematical concepts, such as less, more, half, and full and builds fine motor skills."
In their book, Fearless Feeding, Maryann Jacobsen and Jill Castle—both registered dietitians—say that family-style feeding is an authoritative and effective way to help children eat better. As stated in their book, "Family-style meals not only shift the control to your child, but also capitalize on skill development and success."
To help serve kids family-style, the authors recommend preparing foods in appropriate serving sizes and placing them on platters or in bowls; cutting foods like chicken breasts into 3-ounce portions; offering small potatoes; using 8-ounce glasses for milk; and using half-cup serving spoons to dish out grains, vegetables and fruits. The authors also discourage parents from using the meal table to discuss topics related to nutrition, eating, and food. They say, "Frankly, it can feel like too much pressure, especially if your child is picky or overweight." They recommend keeping conversation topics light, fun, and entertaining so that the meal table can be a place your children enjoy. Sounds great to me!
If there's any real downside to making family meals family-style, it might be the inevitable mess kids make when serving themselves. We all know how that goes! Whitehead suggests keeping the atmosphere positive and to see spills and messes as learning opportunities rather than frustrations. "Keeping paper towels close at hand and allowing children to help clean up never hurts," she says.
Do you feed your kids family-style? If not, will you give it a try?
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Image of family enjoying meal at home via shutterstock.