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making “family-style” work, and two tried-and-true one-skillet recipes

Posted by on Aug 23, 2011 in Blog Posts | 20 comments

When I work with clients and we talk about “family-style,” that can bring up new challenges. Family-style means you put the food in serving bowls on the middle of the table and let everyone serve themselves (little ones may need some help, and it can get messy!) Parents tell me this is one of the quickest ways to neutralize many power-struggles.

Timmy has a fit that mashed potatoes are on his pre-served plate? You are fighting before the meal has even begun.  Game over. Allow kids to control as much as they can, and remember, once you have put the food in bowls on the table, pat yourself on the back. Now, it’s up to them to decide what and how much from what you put out there. If strong-willed Timmy can do it himself, and it’s his idea, and he has control, he will be more likely to take some of those mashed potatoes. Maybe not tonight, but he is more likely to try if he doesn’t have to “lose” to eat mashed potatoes…

some challenges that come up:
• no dishwasher, and the extra dishes are going to push you over the edge
• small table, no room for serving bowls
• you don’t own any “serving bowls” and money is tight

First, be kind to yourself. Do the best you can. If that means that you are hanging on to your sanity by a thread, get paper plates and throw them out instead of doing dishes. If you have older kids, you can put the hot pans right on the table (using a tile or hotplate so you don’t damage your table.) Try out one dish meals. (See my faves: lasagna, and tuna casserole) If there is a bookshelf next to the table, put the bread basket there, or once everyone has had a first-go round on a dish, put it there. Use small bowls as serving bowls. Sometimes, you may need to refill the serving bowl, but it will fit on the table.Target has a good selection of smaller bowl at lower prices, or hit garage sales (in all your spare time… That reminds me that our old neighborhood had its annual garage sale last weekend. See if you can find a neighborhood sale, way more efficient. It’s the 5th year I went to this one, and the only time I can stand garage sales. The hunt is not part of the thrill for me…)

Anyway, as parents, we do the best we can. Think creatively and see what happens. How does your family  do “family-style?”

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  1. Susan

    Thanks for your response, Katja. My son is just a month shy of 4 years old and we are doing some of what you say — if there are things that are not being served hot I will serve those family style. It’s just the stuff that would be too hot that I set out to cool. Sometimes that’s the whole meal, sometimes not. He does eat a wide variety of foods, though he has his likes and dislikes as we all do.

  2. Susan

    I try really hard to adhere to the DOR and do put all the food on the table, but my son is really sensitive about the temperature of food — he freaks out about hot food — so I’ve taken to serving up his food on a plate and letting it cool while I get the table set. By the time we all sit down, his food is room temp and the rest of ours is still hot. We don’t ever force him to eat anything and he can take or leave whatever’s on the plate. Still, I sometimes feel bad that I’m not doing the “family-style” part of DOR. Is catering to his temperature preferences just like catering to any other kind of picky eating?

    • katja

      Hi Susan I wonder how old your little one is? M was this way until very recently. You’re not cooking other foods, he’s not manipulating, you’re not arguing, he enjoys food and meals, it sound like you are being considerate but not catering. You can always serve some of the other foods family-style. Don’t feel bad if you are doing something that works for your family. It is different that making special food. Your emotional reaction will clue you in. Do you feel angry about it? Is it escalating? Sometimes for really hot foods, I plan to take them out and put them on the table a little earlier so they can cool a little… It will likely get better as he gets older too! Good for you!

  3. jennifer nelson

    Family style at the table seems to backfire for us because my kids just can’t seem to get the idea of “passing” the food on to the next person. Also, I sometimes feel that the table appears so cluttered that I don’t think the kids see all the choices, only the bowl that is right in front of them. I have found that setting up a buffet at the counter works better for us. I guide them into starting at one end with their plate and walk along the whole length of the counter so they see all the options, then sit down at the table. If they want more, they can get up and help themselves. This also seems to give them that opportunity for movement during the meal…good for them as sitting still can still be a challenge for them. Taking the bowls off the table and having more space gives us more space for our routine in the school year…we allow (encourage) our kids to do their math homework at the table during dinner. Eating stimulates the brain, and we are there to help out if needed. My son eats a little, does a problem or two, talks, eats more, another problem, etc. In 40 minutes he has eaten, and finished the dreaded math, leaving more free time.

    • katja

      Sounds like you have found something that works for you. A few thoughts for other readers… If you have small children, the buffet idea might not be ideal. Also, if you have a picky child who is used to a lot of pressure and attention, the solo trip to the buffet to try a new food might be enough to make them think twice. I have had many clients say that when no one was “looking,” the “picky” one would slide a piece of X discreetly onto her plate and give it a try. Another thought. Homework at the table is risky. Sounds like it works for you, but it can distract some kids from tuning in to hunger and fullness cues, and also if it is a difficult subject, may bring anxiety to the table. Also, what happens to the flow of conversation if one person at the table is distracted. Would you allow the other children to read a novel, or text? It can be a slippery slope. Some kids do need an adult presence. maybe after dinner while clean-up is going on kids can sit at the table and do homework, or afterwards, dad can sit with a magazine and be available for help. Just a few thoughts from the feeding dynamics perspective. keep writing, though, the buffet idea sounds interesting!

  4. Stephanie

    My husband was skeptical at letting our 3 year-old serve himself. It is indeed a very messy process. B is learning to control how much he takes and develop those fine motor skills used to scoop and serve. When it comes to super difficult things we ask if he wants it and then verify if the portion size is to his liking, “Is that how much you’d like?” We do however hold back on the condiments. He’d serve himself black beans and rice, topped with sour cream and shredded cheese and use his fingers too scoop off the cheese and cream. He then asks for more cheese and cream. I tell him they go with the beans. We’ll be happy to give him more if and when he’s ready for another serving of beans. That’s probably infringing on the DOR a bit though….

    Then there are times, especially lunch when leftovers are consumed and there’s not as abundant amount of food, that I dish up the plates. B knows he’s not required to eat any of what he doesn’t want. Come to think of it, I’ve been asking him what he’d like to have on his plate. It’s a work in progress.

    It can be frazzeling to get everyone set up with food before you get a chance to enjoy your own meal. Most times the kids are done before we are. That’s when we excuse them to play and we relax and enjoy. Well, at least we try to. Some nights it seems dinner happens in one big rushed, stress ball. And I wonder if it’s even worth it. The kids are asking for attention and the table is full of dishes to be cleaned up. Other nights, like tonight, kids eat (or don’t) and let us relax and clean up in peace. I assume when they are older (they are 3 and 1 right now) we can expect a little more help in the clean-up department.

    • katja

      Yes, it gets better as they get older! Kids often finish first, and I’m impressed that they sometimes let you eat your meal in peace. Meal clean-up is a task I do not enjoy. I much prefer cooking. Often when we eat out, the impetus is as much not wanting to clean up as not wanting to cook… I wonder what your worry is with the condiments like cheese nd sour cream? Do they matter-of-factly accept your limits, or is there conflict? usually parents can tell when they are crossing the line, as they feel tense, and the power-struggles commence! M used to be a HUGE condiment eater, licking sauces off sweet-potato fries etc. I found that letting it go (if there was enough) worked well, and her eating has evolved…

  5. lyorn

    We were eating in the kitchen when I was small, and my mother and I didn’t eat the same things, I decided what went in my pot from what was in the fridge (“We have potatos, and eggs, and sausages and cheese and spaghetti, what do you want?”), and she decided what went in hers. We played “I have to eat your food and you have to eat mine” and whined playfully about what the other person was eating.

    As doing the dishes (though not the pots or pans) was my job, I didn’t complain that we did not use any additional bowls!

  6. Elizabeth

    Great post! We too do as Heather described and serve in the kitchen if I am having a really tired day (I’m a single mom and often it’s just the two of us). But I often just put the pots and pans and even the cutting board of veggies on the table 🙂 We like to light a candle and do a little prayer reading sometimes too, which my daughter likes a lot. The other thing that I’ve done that works well for our little family is I have a small flip up table from Ikea that is installed under my windowsill in the kitchen. My daughter is a very slow eater and often I am really antsy to get the kitchen cleaned up (again, single mom, really like to do it before bed b/c otherwise I’m too tired). So what I’ve been doing is after we eat together if she’s still eating, I let her come sit in the kitchen so we can keep chatting together while I do dishes – it’s really nice and then she’s not sitting all alone.

    • katja

      Oh, I love all of this! What a wonderful meal-time memory bank you are creating! Lots of “happy” meals! Nice solution for keeping her company with the realities of getting it done.

  7. Elizabeth

    I struggle a bit with an opposite problem when we serve family-style – my seven-year-old daughter is reluctant to try to serve herself, and wants someone else to put food on her plate, butter her roll, cut up her chicken, etc. Between her and my preschooler who actually needs the help, sometimes they’re almost done eating by the time I’ve managed to take my first bite.

    • katja

      Yes, it is time-consuming to cut meat for the little ones etc. If there is something I know M can do, I often say, “I will help you butter that roll, but I am going to eat some of my dinner too. You can wait a few minutes or do it yourself.” That seems to help, and it does get better with time! I wonder why your daughter is reluctant? Does she worry about spills? Can she handle the utensils? Maybe ask her? “Susie, maybe you can show your little sister how to serve herself mashed potatoes like a big girl?” If she say no, maybe ask her why? “You don’t like to do it yourself? Can you tell me why?” Let me know if you find anything out!

  8. Heather

    Maybe it’s from years of living in rentals with tiny kitchens and no dishwashers, but serving family style at the table is a habit that we haven’t really established. My husband (who does 90% of the dishes) would much prefer to serve straight off the stove top. Sometimes we compromise by putting the plates, skillets, and saucepans on the counter between the kitchen and dining room and serving from there – we have counter stools so my son can climb up there to serve himself. I’d still like to move to more at-table serving, though. We have enough space, we just need to make it a habit.

    I love the comment above about quesadillas as a sour cream delivery device. For me, they serve as a delivery method for guacamole, so I completely understand!

    • katja

      I always tell parents, if things are going well, you’re not struggling, meals are fun, your child eats a variety, feels good about food, and self-regulates, then don’t feel like you have to change. If it’s “working” for you, then enjoy!

  9. Bobbini

    I’m glad you brought this up! We have family style dinners and use many of the ‘tricks’ you mentioned–from smaller serving bowls to one-dish suppers. We’ve done it this way since our kids were toddlers and the mess has gotten much better now that they’re 5 and 6!

    The only issues we continue to have (‘we’ being my husband and I) have to do with condiments and wasted food. My son will take a large second helping of spaghetti, for instance, and most of it ends up in the trash because he’s not really that hungry. Or my daughter will use her quesadilla as a sour cream delivery device, and not actually eat the quesadilla. We generally don’t restrict quantities or combination of condiments, but we go through a LOT of ketchup these days.


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