I think it’s safe to say that one of the things we modern-day moms do a bit more than our moms did is baby our kids, especially when it comes to what they eat. Some of this is good, of course. Regulating intake of sugar and processed foods is probably not something best left up to people whose idea of a balanced meal is beef jerky and fruit snacks. But at some point, kids need to learn to make their own good choices, right? When and how we do that is each family’s decision, but for me the food thing was getting ridiculous.
Honestly, I’m not sure I ever fully graduated from the solid food stage, even though my kids are well out of high chairs and Pull-ups. When making dinner, I have always micro-managed their plates, usually giving them some sliced veggies from the salad we’re having plus kid-sized portions of whatever else.
I do this because I want them to eat balanced, healthy meals at home, and I rationalize it with thoughts of the foods they have access to when they’re away from me, at school, soccer practice and birthday parties. But the kids don’t always want everything in the proportions I give them. Shocker, I know, but sometimes they want more grilled steak than asparagus risotto. And it recently occurred to me that, since they can do long division, maybe my kids are actually capable of feeding themselves.
So I’ve stopped assembling their perfectly portioned plates and started serving most meals family-style. Not only is this much less work for me, it’s empowering for the kids and pretty fun, too. The kids get to make some (albeit minor) decisions for themselves, and I can relax a little about counting the red pepper slices on their plates. It’s a win-win situation, if you ask me.
Family-style dining works with almost any meal, and if you have pots that can go from stove or oven to table (get some trivets), it doesn’t create a pile of extra dishes to wash. Most important, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what my kids serve themselves, and subsequently eat. I had assumed my daughter would eat nothing but pasta and my son would pick at a few tomato wedges, but they both eat a decent variety. Plus, they’re pretty darn proud of themselves, which has got to be good for their self-esteem. I like that — and the lack of dinner-table battles is very nice, too.
Here are some basic tips for going self-serve at family dinners. Enjoy!
- You still need some basic ground rules. While the goal is to help kids make their own good choices and learn critical thinking skills, they can’t subsist on a diet of black olives alone. Well, maybe they can, but in our house the only rule is you have to at least try everything on the table. Often the kids take one bite and say, “That’s not so disgusting,” and then take another bite and say, “Mmm, that’s really good, can I have some more?”
- You probably already do this, but it deserves a mention: The more kids participate in the whole mealtime business, the better. If they help cook the meal, it’s more likely they’ll eat it. Plus helping with setting the table and washing up teaches useful life skills.
- Serving themselves and others helps kids learn social skills, good manners and (when you remind them to get their paws out of the ravioli until it’s their turn) patience. Let the kids serve you and each other; we even let them take our “order,” which they think is really nifty.
- Caution the kids about taking too much and wasting food. While we don’t strictly enforce the you-take-it, you-eat-it rule, we have evoked it enough times to scare the kids into taking reasonable portions. I like to remind them that seconds are only an arm’s reach away.
- When making main courses like salads or even pasta dishes, try serving the components on a platter and letting the kids make their own creations. Once they’re done selecting what they want, you can toss the rest with dressing or sauce for the adults. This avoids the kids being forced to eat foods that have been touched by other foods, which all moms know is worse than eating dog food. Here’s the recipe for the un-composed salad shown below.
- If it’s too hard for little kids to reach over the table, just hold the bowl or platter up for them to serve from. They might not yet be skilled with tongs, but let them try. If all else fails, you can serve them the messy stuff and let them use their fingers to grasp veggies; it’s good practice for their fine motor skills.
- If you’ve made a roast chicken or pork loin, you can carve it at the table or simply cut it up before bringing it to the table.
- In addition to serving meals family style, I also put out a pitcher of water and cups. It’s so nice to not be asked for a glass of water every five minutes during dinner.
- If you’re really into empowering kids’ decision making, consider letting them each decide the dinner menu once a week or once a month. Nothing piques a kid’s interest in food like having his or her favorite meal prepared.