Family style meals give kids a healthy start

When child care providers join the WeTHRIVE! Child Care Initiative, they commit to providing a healthy environment for the children they serve. Providing “family style” meals is one way they set young children up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

A different mealtime strategy

Andrea Liptak, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with Hamilton County Public Health, works with child care providers to help them meet WeTHRIVE! and Ohio Healthy Program guidelines. She explains that family style dining is based on the division of responsibility, considered “the gold standard practice for feeding children.” In the division of responsibility, adults are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, while children are responsible for how much and whether they eat the food provided (see below).

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“This type of mealtime strategy is very different from those raised to ‘clean their plate,’” Andrea said. “Rather than pressuring children to eat everything on their plate, family style meals encourage them to select and serve foods on their own, developing fine motor skills and teaching them to listen to cues of fullness and hunger.” In family style dining, adults are encouraged to sit with the children, eat the same food, and help guide pleasant mealtime conversation.

Put toddlers in control?!

Where a traditional child care mealtime might involve kids being given a prepared plate of food, family style dining puts more control — and serving utensils — into the hands of young children. This can be a daunting thought. “When family style dining is first introduced to providers, there is almost always skepticism,” Andrea said. They’re afraid that children allowed to make their own choices will never select fruits and vegetables. The potential for spills and messes is another common concern. (See Andrea’s Tips for Successful Family Style Dining at the end of this post.)

Despite this, many WeTHRIVE! child care providers have made the change to family style dining. We recently visited three providers to see how family style meals work for them.

Greater Expectations Learning Center (Finneytown)
At Greater Expectations, family style meals are popular with Viola Kitchen’s class of 5-year-olds. “I think they like the responsibility and getting to make their own choices,” she said. On the day we observed lunch, most of the children took helpings of the fruit (pineapple) and vegetable (green beans). One little girl who initially said “no thank you” to the green beans did take and eat a single green bean with a little encouragement from her teacher and classmates.

DSCN3925 (1)Viola says that when they first tried family style meals, children often overloaded their plates with favorite foods. Now the kids know to take just two scoops the first time a food is passed around. The dish stays on the table and they can have more if they are still hungry.

Corban Learning Center (Mt. Auburn)
Preschoolers at Corban eat meals family style. Center director Ary Underwood-Grant says the children like serving themselves. “They get to control what they’re eating and how much they’re eating,” she said. “Certain kids will take too much, but most will take just what they know they’re going to eat.” And yes, we saw most of them take the fruit and veggie on the day we visited.

DSCN3870 (1)Ary’s advice to those wary of family style dining is to be patient and keep practicing. “It won’t be perfect the first time,” she said. “But after a few tries the children will have mastered a new skill and family style dining becomes way easier than one person preparing and passing out 16 plates.”

Complete Care Development Center (Westwood)
Crystal Howard Scott has always served family style in her type B home child care. On our visit, we saw young children pouring their own cups of milk from small, easy-to-handle jugs. “Some people may think it’s messy,” Crystal said. “In the beginning it is, but the more practice they get the more confident and independent they will become.”


And family style dining isn’t just about the food. “We use family style as an activity,” Crystal said. “We’re able to work on turn taking, manners, portion sizes, and fine motor skills.” We noticed that the children were also very engaged when she brought out mealtime “conversation cards.”

Starting small

Andrea encourages child care providers to introduce family style dining in baby steps. Start out by making snack time family style. Or try family style dining one day a week. You can gradually add days as staff and children become more comfortable.

Children can also practice fine motor skills like scooping and pouring during playtime, Andrea says, using items such as dry beans. When playing outside, kids can practice pouring water into cups without worrying about spills.

It’s worth it

Implementing family style dining in the child care setting is worthwhile, Andrea says, because of the many benefits it provides. Children gain awareness of portion sizes, learn to listen to cues of hunger and fullness, and build positive relationships with adults.

“The autonomy children gain from being able to select their own food choices reduces stress around mealtime, especially when children are introduced to new or less familiar foods,” Andrea added. “Taking the stress out of mealtime and taking the focus off the food helps children to develop a healthy relationship with food.”

That healthy relationship with food, along with other benefits of family style dining, can prevent childhood obesity and give children the healthy start in life they deserve!

Check out our video featuring WeTHRIVE! child care providers and family style dining:

More information about family style dining in the child care setting can be found here.