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One challenge that I frequently see when people are wanting to improve their health and fitness is bringing the family along on the ride. While spouses can be stubborn (that’s a topic for a different blog post) kids can be incredibly challenging. We want to teach our children good habits and a good relationship with all foods, but sometimes the task can seem daunting when all they want is mac n cheese and dino nuggets.

Today I’ve invited Adina Pearson of Healthy Little Eaters to share an incredibly powerful strategy for teaching healthy, balanced eating without the power struggle, or turning food into a list of “good” or “bad” foods. Adina is a registered dietitian nutritionist and mom. She blogs at HealthyLittleEaters and co-teaches online child-feeding courses at FeedingBytes.com.

Now here’s Adina:

Before I had kids I assumed that feeding kids would be easy.  After all, I was a dietitian.  But, It’s never been a harder time to feel confident about feeding kids than it is today.  Between the nonstop diet chatter in the media, widespread fear about childhood obesity, and famous chefs blaming parents for ‘pickiness,’ the prospect of planning meals for a family with little kids can be downright paralyzing.  But it doesn’t have to be.   I’d like to teach you one strategy for serving meals that can improve matters regardless of your family’s food preferences.

It is normal for children to hit a ‘picky’ period between 2 and 5 years old.  They’re growing need for independence and “I do it myself!” emerges at the same time as: wariness of new foods, strong yet fickle preferences, slowed growth (compared to their rapid growth as infants) and a go-go-go attitude toward movement.  They start to say, in all sorts of frustrating ways:

  • Don’t strap me down in the high chair I have things to explore!
  • Don’t stick that spoon in my mouth!
  • Don’t put that weird food on my plate!
  • Don’t keep pestering me about eating more, I’m full!
  • Don’t expect me to like chicken today, I had it two weeks ago!
  • Don’t talk to me about protein, this bread is sooo good!

Food battles are usually a sign that we’re not being appropriately responsive to a child’s developmental need with feeding.  They usually mean that we, out of fear, are getting too controlling or trying to control the wrong things at mealtimes.   

Kids are born with an amazing ability to self-regulate their eating and grow into healthy bodies.

The best thing parents can do is support that natural self-regulation and growth by feeding in a structured, yet responsive way.  

One excellent way to accomplish this is via the family meal.  You might be thinking “What?  That stressful time of “take one more bite” negotiations and “kale will make you strong, they taste just like chips, just try it” nagging?  Or maybe in your house it’s all about the catering:  steak & fries for Daddy , roasted chicken & asparagus for Mommy, chicken nuggets & ketchup for Bobby, and crustless PB&J for Susie.  

It’s time to consider a new definition of the “family meal” — one where everyone shares the same food in relative peace.  

It’s called Family Style Service.  And it’s amazing.   

family style meals

Serving “family style” involves setting all the food out on the table in pots/serving dishes so everyone can serve themselves–of course this means each person starts with an empty plate.  You give appropriate structure by having a sit-down meal in the first place and preparing good food.  Now you can give appropriate autonomy by letting your child practice:

  • Choosing how much (if anything) to eat from the selections on the table.
  • Using tongs and serving spoons to develop her motor skills and hand eye coordination.  2 to 3 year olds may still need a lot of help, of course.
  • Manners when he says “yes, please” and “no thank you” as you pass food around the table.  
  • Being comfortable around different foods that are right in front of her.
  • Sneaking up on the various entrees, vegetables, and other sides he sees you eat.

Trusting children to eat enough is important because it permits them to trust themselves too.  

For some kids, this change in allowing them control of their plate will be an instant game changer resulting in happier mealtimes.  For others, eating gets worse before it gets better because 1) kids are testing you to be sure you’re serious and 2) they finally get to respond according to their own appetite and enjoy the freedom.  

To calm your nerves, remember:

  • Look at your child’s eating over the course of a week before you even consider panicking. Chances are you’ll see that “balance” emerges over time.
  • Skipping vegetables for a time, isn’t going to stunt their growth or undermine their future.  
  • A strong preference for carbs is very natural in growing children who are active.  When you see your child reaching for another dinner roll before he’s taken a bite of meat, relax.  Protein deficiency is extremely rare in a healthy child.  In fact, two cups of milk meets a toddler’s protein needs before you even factor in a single other food eaten.  

Serving meals “family style” means cooking one meal–that’s right, no catering!  The key is that your meal must include something your child generally accepts and can fill up on should the main entree seem too challenging.  Offering a safe food is considerate and shows sensitivity to your child’s developing competence with food and eating. 

That safe food might be dinner rolls, sliced apples, tortillas, rice, pasta or really anything that isn’t a separate meal in itself.  The safe food must also be clearly available for all.  The old “Jill these are your fries since you don’t like baked squash” has to go because all it did in the past was teach Jill an unnecessary distinction between your food and her food.  She didn’t have to learn to eat what the family ate.  But your child now can!

What I’ve learned from the feeding literature, my kids, and my client families is that feeding kids is at least as much about how we feed them as what we feed them.  If you focus on the food and “getting it into” the child or controlling their portion in order to increase consumption of something else, you can easily fall into the trap of ruining the feeding relationship, creating the very hang-ups and food aversions that today’s diet-focused environment encourages.  But if you focus on your feeding job of serving a variety of foods in a pleasant meal environment and let kids do their job of eating, kids will do much better in the long run.  Serving meals “Family Style” is one simple way to accomplish this.

If your child’s eating is driving you crazy, check out her free training webinar on how to help your child eat better.

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Ashley Palmer
Ashley is a Registered Nurse with a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition. Ashley loves her son, her husband, and lifting heavy things then putting them back down repeatedly. She is a nutrition, fitness and weight loss coach and blogs at www.youtrition.net.


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