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Family-Style Meals 101

Written by: Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlinScreen Shot 2015-05-01 at 11.30.14 AM

According to our clients struggling with extreme picky eating, serving family-style meals is the #1 tip that helps turn things around at the table. As Skye Van Zetten, mom of a child with selective eating and Mealtime Hostage blogger wrote, “Once he was given the option to choose what he wanted on his plate and permission to do with it whatever he wanted, family meals immediately took a turn for the better.”

Why? When you put a pre-plated meal in front of most children with picky eating, the panic and negotiations start: “I don’t like that!” “How much of that do I have to eat?” “It’s touching!” Starting meals in this mode causes anxiety to rise and appetite to plummet. Children then tend to eat less, rely on safe foods even more, and avoid any exploration of the new foods in front of them.

Serving food family, or buffet-style gives him a sense of control and reduces anxiety. It eliminates most battles without bribes or rewards. We recommend it all the time, but transitioning can be hard. Here are a few tips to get started!

Tell them what’s up

Let your older children know what you are doing and why. “We want to have a better time at the table. We are going to start putting the food out and you can serve yourself what and how much you want to eat and we can help you if you want. You don’t have to eat what you put on your plate either.”

What to serve

Always serve at least one food your child generally eats along with the other family foods. Put a bowl of accepted crackers right next to the bowl of mashed potatoes, the peas, and the rotisserie chicken. It’s not “his” or “your” food, it’s just dinner. Put the serving dishes in the middle of the table, just within his reach. He will likely say, “No thank you” the first time it is offered or passed around, but halfway through the meal he may reach out and take some on his own. This can take several weeks for some children and he might not be ready to eat it yet, but increasing comfort and curiosity is the beginning.

What if my child needs help?

Help guide or stabilize his hand with the serving spoon with his permission. If you need to serve him, put a small amount on the serving spoon, and ask, “Would you like some X?” Wait for the answer. If yes, “This much?” Then, “Point to where you want it on your plate.”

Serving family-style, along with other strategies, can begin to make meals a time you and your children actually look forward to!

To learn more about supporting appetite and healthy growth with relationship-building strategies, check out Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Approach for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders. Or visit For tips and articles, sign up for the authors’ newsletter, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


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