I wish that when I was pregnant someone would have told me the truth about parenting. At the time, I was consumed with baby gear and planning my ideal birth (laughable!). Yet soon I would discover the truth: nothing took up my time and energy more than feeding my family.
This doesn’t change as they get older. Getting meals on the table is the one constant of family life. And I have found that family-style meals have been key to my survival as the lead food parent in the household.
It’s strange to think that I’ve incorporated family-style meals for over 10 years now. I realize that not every parent knows about family-style meals and their benefits. Because I’ve been taking pictures of some of our dinners lately for Instagram, I thought I’d take some time to write about them.
What are family-style meals?
Family-style meals are when the components of a meal are put on the table in bowls or plates so everyone can serve themselves. The bowls and/or plates are passed around and put back in the middle of the table where more can be eaten if desired.
Kids up to two usually benefit from some food items put on their plate with replenishes as needed. But some time after two with some help, children can start to serve themselves.
One study found that 36% of families use plated meal service meaning that the different food items are put on a plate and served. Twenty-nine percent of families use family-style meal service. And 11% use half plated and half family-meal service while 24% use some other combination.
Quick note. When we do mixed dishes like lasagna, enchiladas or chili, I leave the mixed-dish meal on the stove and everyone can grab a piece. Then back at the table are different items like fruit, salad or bread. Those pictures aren’t included here.
The Benefits of Family Style meals
Responsive feeding — responding appropriately to a child’s hunger and fullness signals — is a term used as the optimal way to feed babies. You can think of family-style meals as a way to responsively feed older kids. According to the aforementioned study, “Serving foods and beverages family-style, where children select their own portions and serve themselves, is one way for parents to engage in responsive feeding, and may encourage better self-regulation of children’s intake and yield positive child weight-related outcomes.” Of all the feeding styles, families who used family-style service were the least likely to used restriction.
I also think family-style meals simplifies dinner because it lends itself to theme nights. So let’s look at some family-style meals in action.
6 Family Style Meals
Taco Night: Also called Mexican night in our home, we always start the week with this. I know it should be Tuesday but we can’t wait! Basically, any protein will work: chicken, fish, shrimp, lentils, beans. Serve along with salsa, veggies, guacamole, cheese, and flour or corn tortillas and your good to go. I always provide black beans with this meal unless they are the protein. Here’s a casual one from fish taco night.
Pasta Night: This is either a preplanned meal like lasagna or pasta in some sauce. Again, any protein will work or keep it to vegetables. And I always serve a salad with this meal. My favorite meal to make this time of year is pasta primavera shown below. My easiest meal to make is spaghetti with Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs.
Sheet Pan Night: I’ve come to love the ease and tastiness of sheet pan meals. My favorite to make is lemon pepper chicken. Because we have two stoves I usually roast the veggies in the other oven but you can add it to the protein as long as the cooking time is the same. Serve alongside some fruit, salad, bread or other grain and your good to go.
Finger Food Night: This is the night I really don’t want to use a lot of dishes or simply want the ease of finger foods. This can be a snack tray like the one’s Sally from Real Mom Nutrition showcases on her blog (great for a Friday). I often make chicken tenders with baked fries and fruits and veggies. NO utensils required.
Fish Night: Most weeks we have fatty fish for dinner. Typically salmon or steelhead trout. I serve with some veggie, grain, or a starchy vegetable like potatoes. In this meal, I put out some leftovers from Thanksgiving including stuffing and a green bean dish.
Seasonal Night: Summer is great for grilling and cooler weather is perfect for soups, stews, and chili. Just make some sides for the main meal for grilling and stews can include a side of bread and salad. So each season, make a new night for that seasonal food — grill night, stew night, etc. In this meal, I had a leftover veggie tray from an earlier outing that I added some apples to.
Changes through the years
Because I’ve been doing this for a decade and my kids are 10 and 12, I’ve seen them grow and change around family-style meals. Little D is my very, gradual food adder. In other words, he adds new foods slowly but steadily. He’ll say he’s not ready yet and then one time it’s like wow, he did it. Ketchup is his favorite and it’s behind his more recent additions of broccoli, steak, and a few bites of fish.
Big A loves a decent variety of food. I believe she is a foodie that doesn’t know she’s a foodie. That’s because she has very strong opinions about food and can always tell when I change something. She has moved onto salad territory (mostly Ceaser), loves most protein foods including fish and steak, still prefers fruits to veggies, and is an everything bagel lover. She’s also become very helpful in the kitchen. She puts together beautiful fruit trays and makes the guacamole on Mondays.
I’ve often talked about how I handle sweets and for a time I did the dessert with dinner strategy Ellyn Satter recommends. Now sweets are just a part of what my kids eat with little fanfare. They usually pick one time a day to have something they are craving and that will be after dinner if they didn’t have any earlier. They decide how much to eat and put it away after. I keep a few of their favorites on hand like chocolate, dunkers (trader Joe’s) and ice cream of course!
I typically don’t plan a family dessert as I personally prefer to have something sweet — typically dark chocolate with sea salt or dark chocolate peanut butter cups– after lunch.
The exception is the once every so often batch of cookies I bake. That is usually enjoyed in the afternoon by all.
10 years later, I’m grateful for Family Style Meals
Family-style meals are a great, no-pressure way to expose kids to food and create a rotation of dinner meals. It also a welcoming way to share food with family and friends. Letting everyone take what they are hungry for, get more if needed, and manage different food preferences.
Of course, it’s not the only way to feed a family and using a combination of meal-service styles makes sense too. But for me anyway, it’s been a lifesaver.
Do you serve meals family style?
Most all of the recipes in this post are featured in The Family Dinner Solution: How to Create a Rotation of Dinner Meals Your Family Will Love
Julie Revelant says
Thank you so much for this post! I have often read RDNs caution against this because of portion control. Although I can understand that, I think it gives kids choices and empowers them to make healthy food choices and recognize their hunger and satiety cues. Great ideas!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Thanks! Yes, I think family-style meals create a nice atmosphere at the dinner table.