If you have been reading my blog or following me on social for a while, you know I am a big proponent of family-style meals. And if mealtimes are a struggle, serving your meals family or buffet style may immediately reduce the stress levels of kids (and adults). 

But the transition to family-style meals may not be easy.  If everyone else is used to food plated for them, the change may be very overwhelming. In this post, I will break down step by step, how to transition to family-style meals without stress, spending extra money or more time in the kitchen.

First thing first, what is a family-style meal? 

A family-style meal is any food placed in the middle of the table. Every family member gets an empty plate and serves themselves what they like. Family-style meals promote independence and mealtime competence in children.  It is a brilliant tool that parents can gently nudge the family meal dynamics towards a more responsive, trust-based approach. 

Do all families need to switch to family-style meals?

I often recommend serving meals this way when kids resent family meals and everyone’s eating seems to be affected by the high-stress levels at mealtimes.

Of course, this serving style is not the ultimate solution for every feeding problem out there, but it is a simple and effective strategy to let go of mealtime pressure.  

If you are plating meals and everyone at the table is happy and eating well, you may not need to switch. Although the fact that you are browsing through my blog may hint otherwise. 😉

But if you are tired of mealtime negotiations and the resentment they bring to the table, it is definitely worth considering the switch. And read all the other articles that help families understand the potential origin, cause and solutions for their feeding difficulties.

Number 1 thing your picky eater needs from you

Just how picky is your picky eater? Types of feeding problems, explained

How to end mealtime struggles with your picky eater

10-Step plan to help a child who is anxious at mealtimes

Do you need a table to start serving family-style meals?

Not really. If your table is too small or you do not have one, feel free to serve food on a coffee table or even floor and have picnic-style meals with your little ones.

I guarantee they are going to love it.

If you have a table but it’s small, you can leave some pans and pots on the kitchen counter or hob. When serving the food on plates, ask your child what and how much they want, and plate accordingly.

It takes away some of the interaction and the exposure effect, but if you keep a plate of cut-up veggies, dips, fruit, bread and other smaller items on the table, your child will still get an opportunity to serf herself.

How to start serving meals family-style?

  1. Start with breakfast or a weekend meal. It may be tempting to start serving evening meals family-style but,  as we all know, dinnertime is quite busy already for many families.

    Besides, we tend to serve more dishes for dinner which means more brainstorming on how to transfer all the pots and pans from the stove or countertop to the table.  

    Breakfast, on the other hand, is a very easy meal to serve family style so it is a great start. A bowl of cut fruit or berries,  a plate with scrambled eggs and toast and a jug of orange juice or milk go to the middle of the table. Everyone serves themselves what they like. Family style meal, done!
  2. Keep meals easy. Did you know that a pizza and a salad placed in the middle of the table make a great family-style meal? The same goes for a bowl of noodles, cut up veggies with hummus and some cold cuts.

    If you keep meals simple as you transition to family-style,  you are getting all the benefits without doing too much work. 

    Here are some ideas on what exactly to include in the family meals.
  3. Consider no-cook meals. An example would be a sandwich bar with a loaf of bread, cold cuts, spreads, cheese and some fruit on the side. Or a yogurt bar with a selection of toppings for breakfast or a light dinner.  Another option is a store-bought rotisserie chicken with some baguette, tomato sauce and fresh vegetables.  

  4. Prepare the tools. You will need a  few easy to use and child friendly serving tools like tongs and serving spoons so that your kids can master the art of serving food safely and effectively. 
  5. Keep it age-appropriate. Toddlers may need help pouring and scooping but they will learn it very quickly.

    Younger children rarely can serve food to themselves independently, so feel free to help them by bringing the bowl closer, showing what’s in it and asking if they want some.  

    For babies under 12 months, you can just place a small amount of everything on their tray. They will throw down on the floor everything they are not in the mood for.  

Related: Family Style Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters

How to start serving family style meals

Common pitfalls to watch out for:

  1. Unrealistic expectations. The point of family-style meals is helping kids to feel independent at mealtimes and self regulate how and what they want to eat.

    So be prepared to find out what your little one’s eating personality is like. It may not be exactly what you expect. They may prefer more starch and fewer veggies, especially if you have a toddler in midst of the developmentally appropriate picky eating stage. 
  2. More mess. When small kids serve meals to themselves and self-feed, things can get messy.

    Stay prepared by keeping a roll of paper towels and placing a mat under their highchair, if you have to. Remember that mess is good as it helps kids learn about food in many different ways
  3. More leftovers. Because it is hard to predict how much kids will be hungry for, sometimes you will be left with plenty of leftovers in the serving bowls, pans or pots.

    An easy solution is to store them in the fridge so they can be repurposed in other meals in the next few days. I am always happy to have leftover veggies or rice for my lunch the next day! 
  4. Hidden pressure. Although your child will be in charge of how much and what goes on their plate, it will be very tempting to coax them into eating more of this or less of that.

    The reason for it may be your concern about nutrition or growth. My advice here would be to talk to your doctor or dietitian to understand whether there is a problem.

    I have a few articles on this topic that you may find useful:
    Is your picky eater malnourished?

    Is your picky eater growing well?

    Are balanced meals that important?
  5. Serving too much food. Almost every child I know will serve themselves too much food at some point once you switch to family-style meals.

    The key here is not to turn it into an issue but to provide some gentle guidance to help them adjust to this new way of eating.

    You can say something along the lines of: “We serve a little bit on our plate first and then we can have seconds once everyone else has had a turn.”

    Honestly, it is quite difficult to reason like this with a toddler so it is ok to let them have heaps of food on their plate from time to time.

    Mealtime is not only about eating.  For kids, it is also about learning about food, and having a pile of something on their plate is a fascinating experience that, lucky for us, quickly loses its novelty. 
How to start serving family style meals

More Family Style Recipes You Can Try:

15 Quick and Easy Family Meals

Seven easy ways to add vegetables to your family meals

10 Best family-friendly sheet pan meals

Deconstructed ramen makes a perfect family meal

Family-friendly kale, potato and bacon dinner