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Pre-Plated Meals vs. Family-Style Meals

I’ve learned a few things along the way about pre-plated meals vs. family-style dining and I want to share it with you.

I confess. I was a food plater.

I pre-plated meals so my kids had the “right” amount of food and the proper balance at mealtime.

In my early years as a mom, I made healthy meals– selecting, cutting, portioning, plating, pouring and serving all of our family meals to my kids. 

While I didn’t use negative feeding practices like forcing, punishing or bribing my brood to eat, I was definitely deciding what they would eat and how much they would receive.

In other words, I used pre-plated meals as a way to feel in control of my children’s eating.

As such, I wasn’t helping my kids become independent, intuitive or confident with eating.

And that was getting in the way of really raising a healthy eater.

Now, I’m happy to report that I’m a reformed pre-plater.

I was a food plater. Yes, a plater of food for my kids. I've changed my ways.

What are Family-Style Meals?

Family-style meals are simply mealtimes where all the food items in the meal are placed in the center of the table.

Family members pass items around the table from one to another, selecting food items and serving themselves.

How Family-Style Meals Helped Us

When my four children were 4, 6, 7, and 9 years, I made the switch to family-style dinner, and I’ve never looked back.

I’ll never forget my middle daughter’s statement after a week of serving meals our new way,

“Mom, are we going to have a smorgasbord every night?!”

My kids loved it.

And despite my later start, they’ve all turned out to be “normal” eaters, at least from my standpoint. 

Of course, they each have their food preferences and their dislikes.

Sometimes they love dinner and eat a lot, and sometimes they don’t.

Best of all, they tolerate the company of a variety of foods on the table, whether they choose to eat them or not.

5 Things I Know About Pre-Plated Meals

As a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve learned a lot about kids and their eating through my own tribe, their frequent dinner guests, and from the families I counseled in my private practice.

I’m sharing some highlights and drawbacks of pre-plated meals with you here.

1. Pre-plated meals tend to be based in habits, fear, or a desire to control

Sure, it’s easy and efficient to pre-plate food, get it on the table and cleaned up.

If you had your food plated as a child, this may be the only way you know how to do it.

But, there are other ways.

Family-style meals puts your child in charge of selecting which foods he will eat, and how much.

In contrast, pre-plating does little to teach your child how to make good food choices or how much to eat based on appetite.

2. Pre-plated food puts the food decisions in your hands, not your kids’

Taking full control of what and how much your child eats — or being too controlling — is a recipe for revolt down the road.

They may overeat when on their own, or sneak food behind your back.

When you make these food decisions for your child, you rob them the experience of learning to listen to their appetite, navigating what makes up a healthy meal, and practicing balance with eating.

Family-style meals, on the other hand, allow kids to see the variety of meal components (a representation of all food groups, preferably) and gives them autonomy with food selection.

Pre-plated meals versus family-style meals?

3. Parents often over-estimate portion sizes

It’s true.

Because portions are so distorted nowadays, you may over-serve your child, offering adult-size portions without even knowing it.

Your child may get accustomed to eating larger amounts of food.

Rather, family-style meals allow a child to figure out how much food is the right amount for his body.

4. Pre-plating food may cause friction at the table

When you’ve pre-plated a meal for your child, you become invested in how much your child eats.

When your child doesn’t comply, the urge to remind, pressure or force your child to eat what’s on the plate may result in a battle of wills with your child.

And parents usually lose in the long run.

Family-style meals offer a more relaxed atmosphere and minimizes friction as long as you maintain Satter’s Division of Responsibility and a diplomatic feeding style

5. Pre-plated meals can set up impossible expectations

Children can be overwhelmed when faced with a plate full of food, foreign or not.

If food items are new, or difficult to identify, then your child’s stress and anxiety can build up.

A timid or cautious personality faced with new food, and lots of it, can retreat—with his mouth closed.

And, let’s not forget the sense of failure you may feel when your child rejects the meal you’ve worked so hard on.

If meals are difficult in your household, maybe it’s time to try a new approach.

Yes, it takes some trust or maybe even a leap of faith to completely change your feeding style.

You might need to change your mindset, as well.

But it really isn’t that hard to experiment with family-style feeding.

You can do this simply with deconstructed food as a first step.

You may even give up pre-plated meals altogether! 

What have you got to lose?

After all, you can teach an old dog new tricks—I’m living proof.

Do you pre-plate food? Or are you a supporter of family-style meals?

Need More Help?

I created a workshop called Eat in Peace which outlines the steps to planning healthy, balanced meals while creating a positive vibe at the table.

Also, my workbook, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods is a thorough guidebook to help your child branch out with new foods.

Using my systematic, step-by-step approach, you’ll be helping your child try new foods in no time!

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