Way back in the olden days or maybe not so long ago, families regularly sat down together at a table for meals. They passed the food around, talked about their day and learned from one another. Generations of family members all ate together, sharing their family culture and history. Fast forward to 2016, and we are in a different place. Families are not the same. Food is not the same. Our lives are faster paced, and many children spend most of their days in an early learning setting. The lessons learned from eating together “family style” are no less important than they were a century ago, but our lifestyles have made it harder to implement on a regular basis.
What is “family-style” dining?
Simply put, eating “family style” isn’t just about your family gathering together, though that’s an undeniably positive practice – it’s about passing food, serving ourselves and communicating with one another in the process. Something as simple as putting out bowls on the table, instead of serving from the stove, can actually have a big impact on your little learner’s skills and sense of connection to you.
Family-style dining has many benefits including teaching little ones about having conversations and building relationships. Just by saying, “Sweetie, can you pass the bread to me?” you can give your child the chance to be a helper and learn how to make polite requests from your example. Family-style dining also slows the pace of a meal, creating the space for children to take their time, try new things, learn table manners, gain coordination and increase their food vocabulary. Eating family-style also gives you the chance to share what an appropriate serving size is and what kinds of foods they need to grow up healthy. By supporting a relaxing and calm meal time we encourage a lifetime of healthy eating behaviors.
Can this approach solve mealtime power struggles?
In short, the answer to that is a solid “maybe.” If children see family members, young or old, trying unfamiliar foods, they are more likely to try them as well. Children gain independence as they scoop, use tongs, pour their own beverages and use forks and spoons, all with appropriately sized equipment of course. Sometimes, giving a child that sense of control with the details allows them to feel freer to experiment with new foods.
Family-style dining is about the connection – not about perfection!
Want to make family-style dining successful? A few key practices will make it a good experience for both your child or children and the grown-ups in your family. Removing distractions such as televisions, phones and other screens can help everyone really focus on and engage with the meal time. Conversation around the food can flow easily – is it crunchy, salty, and smooth, where did it grow, what country is it from…the possibilities are endless!
Using sturdy and not-too-heavy bowls, spoons and utensils helps children feel truly included in dishing up dinner. Select bowls with wide lips to make it easier for children to pass the items to their neighbor. Tongs and appropriate-sized tableware encourages small motor development – which are the skills that allow children to color, write and manipulate small objects over time. Moms, dads or grandparents should also be prepared for the inevitable spills and mishaps. Having cleaning supplies close at hand and not losing our cool with spilled milk or a sneeze into the bowl of peas puts everyone at ease.
Try it out! Let us know how it goes – or if you have other tips for mealtime magic!